Hoffarth: MLB on Facebook – not in our wildest streams

Hoffarth: MLB on Facebook – not in our wildest streams

Faced with a futuristic prospect of having Facebook, YouTube, Amazon and/or Twitter on board as a new revenue stream and distribution partner. Major League Baseball experienced a whole bunch of post-Easter egg all over its interface last week.

Maybe not everyone was able to watch the entire hard-boiled humiliation. It’s a shell game that’s still buffering.

We’re all for healthy competition when it comes to the traditional media platforms producing live games – it’s our expectation that someday sooner than later in your lifetime, you’ll experience a Super Bowl on some sort of service you know best nowadays as a way to order inflatable palm trees and sturdy tiki torches to decorate a patio for a summer luau without running to Costco.

But in the first exclusive Facebook Watch episode Wednesday – a Phillies-Mets game from New York that would have otherwise gone unnoticed to the local TV markets as well as the MLB.tv out-of-market package – it got caught in the dragnet of a current tarnished, maybe-soon-outdated Internet social media company still trying to explain how millions of its customers had personal data improperly shared with political ads during the 2016 presidential election.

Things were bound to act like an Uncle Charlie Hough knuckleball, starting with the fact the game had a 90-minute rain delay, graphics that blocked the screen and comments that scrolled too fast to even read at times.

In 2017, MLB and Facebook did a trial run, borrowing 20 games from local rights holders for a Friday national simulcast on the social media platform. Assured all would work well enough, Facebook decided it was worth bribing the MLB folks with a reported $35 million – about $1 mil in extra walking-around-money per team – to lock in a 25-game exclusive rights fee to have a weekday, otherwise non-descript contest taken away from two teams and put on its service.

What could go stupid wrong with this?

Strange bedfellows

First, many have recently dropped Facebook, fearing their information was being compromised. But for those who participated, Facebook was in a position to mine data from this MLB relationship and sell it off to third-party advertisers about where one was viewing a game, and what kind of comments were being made. Beautiful.

Next, those who paid up to $120 a year for all out-of-market game access on MLB.tv were now told that, no, this one is now not part of that promise. Complain if you wish.

Doug McIntyre did.

The L.A.-based morning host of his own KABC-AM (790) news talk show, a Daily News columnist, and a home-grown Mets fan took to his Thursday morning program to amplify his disgust in the whole process.

He even registered a complaint online at MLB.com, but the tone-deaf result was that MLB.tv agreed to credit his account for that lost game and then cancel the service – neither of which McIntyre demanded. He was then forced to go through another half-hour-plus process of re-registering.

“Facebook has done nothing wrong in trying to grow its business with livestreaming,” McIntyre said. “Even though it was sloppy and the feed crashed, those things happen, and they’ll work on the technology.

“The problem is that the MLB sold out their fans. Their slog is ‘every out-of-market game all season long.’ They violated the contract, and violated our trust in having a package that promised all out-of-market games. That’s the great frustration in all this. So week after week, another two teams’ fans will have the same issue, and there’ll be complaints, but not enough to make a large difference.

“We live in bizarre times where people are now asking for government regulation on digital use, going against what the free market usually does to regulate itself.”

As McIntyre also connected dots, this isn’t all that different from how the Dodgers, with the MLB’s blessing, have used fans as collateral damage in their distribution struggles. If enough people disconnected their DirecTV service in Southern California over the Dodgers/SportsNet LA issue over the past five years, parent company AT&T would have seen enough in a cost benefit analysis that its brand and customer base had been damaged. Neither things happened.

So we continue to take one for the team, the league and the suspect social media platform, and slog forward.

Who’s up next?

The Dodgers, Angels and every MLB team go into each season knowing they could have as many as nine games lifted from their local schedule and taken by ESPN, Fox or TBS. That’s one thing. The exposure is pretty good, and the teams are compensated well.

Games on Facebook are announced at the start of each month, so we know that only Milwaukee-St. Louis (April 11), Kansas City-Toronto (April 18) and Arizona-Philadelphia (April 26) are locked in for more fun and games.

Yet those three national networks would probably fight harder to keep a Dodgers or Angels game for themselves at some point in this six-month season rather than have Facebook snatch it away, so the odds aren’t as likely that Southern Californians will suffer this layer of confusion and anxiety just witnessed by many in the Philly and N.Y. markets not prepared for this inconvenience.

The Dodgers are one of seven teams, along with the Blue Jays, Pirates, Astros, Rockies, Orioles and Nationals, whose games are available on either an RSN or, when lucky enough, a national broadcast, so cord cutters don’t always do well surviving this situation.

The other somewhat ironic part to this is some Dodgers followers have already figured out some end-arounds to the SportsNet LA access — Internet Protocol TV (IPTV) or a Virtual Private Network (VPN), watching on Chromecast or Roku, hiding their L.A. location from MLB.tv through Unlocator.com, which unblocks streaming services.

But Facebook has also been a cyber-communal gathering spot for not-so-secret society of those who transmit their SportsNet LA feeds onto their FB accounts. It has created a group-watch experience, complete with commentary, that some rather enjoy.

There is some merit to this way in which people are going to use Facebook and MLB feeds, one that behooves both companies to get ahead of it. But ultimately, if MLB thinks it is tapping into a younger demo by having a Facebook relationship, someone there must know that, while there are plenty in the 18-to-34 range among the 2.2 billion monthly active users, the average age skews at 40 and older.

The numbers that came out of the Wednesday experiment also show there were 1.1 million engagements and 4.3 million views of at least three seconds, along with 68,000 comments. Not at all a threat to the main delivery of games over TV sets.

As Michael Mulvihill, the Fox Sports guru of research, strategy and analytics, explained on Twitter on Thursday, the average length of a view on the Facebook game was just a little more than three minutes as people likely popped in and out.

“The audience for Facebook’s game supports the idea that streaming is only a complement to TV for sports, not a replacement,” Mulvihill said. “When your audience is (more than) 90 percent lower than the lowest-rated broadcast game ever, that’s not much of a case for replacement.”

Facebook released a statement Thursday that read in part: “We’re still in the early days of having live sports on Facebook Watch and are learning with every broadcast we have on the platform.”

Tony Petitti, the deputy commissioner of business and media for the MLB, said earlier in the week to New York Newsday that “we are just trying to figure out ways to bring our content to as many platforms where fans aggregate as possible … Obviously it might be a little tricky, but we want to be respectful of our fans. There’s always going to be, when you test new things, a little bit of disruption.”

As to how that disruption measures out, we’ll leave it for Cambridge Analytica to crunch the numbers for its Facebook friends.

Measuring media mayhem

What smokes

* HBO’s presentation (Tuesday, 10 p.m.) of the documentary “Andre The Giant” comes primarily from the Bill Simmons Media Group and WWE, one of the original “30 for 30” pieces that Simmons had lobbied for almost 10 years ago when he was at ESPN. The narrative of André René Roussimoff, who died at 46 in 1993, was how a man 7-feet-4 and almost 500 pounds survived as an athlete and actor at a time when he really wasn’t in on the joke.

* ESPN has a “SportsCenter All-Access” real-time look into “what it takes to create the iconic sports news and information program” on Tuesday at 7 p.m., following the Yankees-Red Sox telecast, and continuing until 9 p.m. Steve Levy and transplanted Fox Sports West guy Michael Eaves anchor with Elle Duncan and Marty Smith to go around the studios, control room and highlight-editing work spaces. Sounds slightly intriguing as much as it can be self-serving.

What chokes

* The L.A. market wasn’t much help in getting a viewership push behind Monday’s NCAA men’s basketball national championship game that featured a one-sided Villanova victory over Michigan. With the game on TBS predictably drawing fewer eyes than it would on CBS – it did an all-time low 10.3 overnight — L.A. came in at 8.0, 49th out of the 56 markets. L.A. was even less robust for Saturday’s Final Four, also on TBS, with a 5.7 rating (47th nationally).

* As part of the new ESPN+ over-the-top, $4.95 service that ESPN will launch starting Thursday, a 15-episode “basketball analysis show” called “Detail,” created and hosted by Kobe Bryant, will be available through the NBA playoffs, the parties announced this week. Otherwise, the “exclusive content” for this on-demand platform for the redesigned EPSPN app isn’t all that impressive — limited live MLB, NHL, PGA, tennis, MLS and boxing events, but no NFL. There is also access to a documentary on the volatile life and times of former Indiana basketball coach Bob Knight (who ESPN then decided to hire as a college hoops analyst), and the “30 for 30” doc library. If you want to be an “early adapter” to this service, knock yourself out.

Media Views: Another Cards game pulled off television in favor of Facebook steaming

Media Views: Another Cards game pulled off television in favor of Facebook steaming

The countdown to “telegate” for some Cardinals fans is five days, and Round 2 now has been added.

The recent news that a Cards game next week won’t be shown on conventional television, instead streamed only on Facebook, rankled many Redbirds rooters (https://tinyurl.com/yaftd6o2). The Cards’ contest Wednesday afternoon, at home against the Milwaukee Brewers, is set to be shown only on embattled social media giant Facebook.

Exclusively, as in no conventional telecast. It will be Major League Baseball’s second such foray into this endeavor, after a rocky start this week.

And now another Birds game has been pulled from TV in favor of a Facebook-only appearance, on May 30 in Milwaukee. That also is a Wednesday afternoon. Both originally had been scheduled to be on Fox Sports Midwest, the team’s local television carrier.

The streaming productions are being carried on Facebook’s Watch MLB Live page and produced by MLB Network. They are available on smart TVs (ones hooked to the internet), which account for a small percentage of television sets, as well as smartphones and other connected devices. There is no charge to access the coverage.

This is part of a deal Major League Baseball made with Facebook before its privacy issues recently arose, leading to a massive drop in its stock value and calls for governmental investigations in the U.S. and abroad. Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg now is scheduled to appear before Congress next week.

The idea to put the games on the social media platform, MLB says, is to try to appeal to younger fans. The productions allow viewers to interact with the telecast and others watching.

“Major League Baseball’s greatest responsibility is to ensure that today’s youth become active participants in our game as players and fans,” commissioner Rob Manfred said last year when it was announced that the Cardinals and Pirates would be playing a regular-season game in Williamsport, Pa., while the Little League World Series was going on there. MLB “has a commitment to building a stronger connection between young people and the national pastime.”

That initial Facebook-only game aggravated some viewers because the graphic showing the score and other statistics took up a significant portion of the screen, as did the area for viewers’ comments. And there were a lot of emojis that appeared.

Some of this was adjusted as the game progressed, and viewers were told how to keep some of the gizmos from appearing on the screen if they desired.

And, as often is the case with streaming, the picture froze once.

It certainly was different than a traditional telecast, with interviews and other features replacing commercials. And there were those viewer comments being show on the screen during the game.

“After receiving many complaints, producers of the stream told viewers how to hide the comments bar via the comment section, as well as on the broadcast itself,” the New York Times reported (https://tinyurl.com/y9ewxkpv). “They also reduced the size of the onscreen graphics, which were originally designed for cellphone screens.”

The traditionalist would consider a lot of this to be clutter. But those who use social media on a daily basis are used to this, at least in some form. And it will continue.

“Today marked a historic and important step as we experiment with new platforms for fans to watch games,” MLB said in a statement Wednesday. “Our fans provided great feedback throughout their experiences, which will continue to help us as we present these social-first broadcasts on Facebook each week.”

The deal calls for 25 MLB games to be shown exclusively on Facebook this season, on weekday afternoons spread across the majors. The schedule is set through May and the Phillies are on it three times.

Social media outlets might be the wave of the future for MLB, which has an older audience than the other major American sports. But there is a lot of grumbling from those living in the present that they are going to be washed away from seeing their favorite team play, either because they aren’t technically savvy or have joined the #DeleteFacebook campaign.

Reality is that conventional TV still pays the freight — Fox Sports Midwest is just beginning a 15-year, billion-dollar deal to show Cardinals games. The Facebook deal reportedly is worth about $30 million to Major League Baseball.

MLB says 4.3 million viewers clicked on Wednesday’s Facebook feed for at least three seconds and there were 1.1 million interactions with the production from viewers.

But the bottom line is that Facebook’s audience peaked at about 85,000 viewers, which includes the mega-markets of New York and Philadelphia. Cardinals telecasts on Fox Sports Midwest often far exceed that in the St. Louis market alone.

Wednesday’s game is to be called by three MLB broadcasters. Scott Braun, who did the Mets-Phillies game on Facebook, has the play-by-play. Former Cardinals pitcher Joe Magrane and Dan Plesac, who pitched for six teams in 18 big-league seasons, are to be the commentators. Local sportscaster Hannah Yates is the reporter. She is best known for her appearances on KFNS (590 AM) and as an anchor on the in-house video feed that appears on the jumbotron at Blues home games.

EXTRA CHARGE COMING FOR SOME ESPN GAMES

The Walt Disney Company is about to take a similar route that MLB has done, by offering programming directly to consumers who do not purchase cable or other related programming services.

But instead of entering business with a social media company, ESPN is going solo. The streaming service, which is to start next Thursday, is branded as ESPN+ and will include MLB, NHL, MLS games and college sporting events that aren’t on ESPN’s television channels.

Customers will be charged about $5 a month, or about $50 a year, for the content. Also to be shown are sports such as tennis, rugby and cricket.

“The launch of ESPN+ marks the beginning of an exciting new era of innovation for our media businesses — one defined by an increasingly direct and personal relationship with consumers,” Kevin Mayer, Disney’s chairman of direct-to-consumer content said in a statement. “This new product reflects our direct-to-consumer strategy focused on combining our beloved brands with our proprietary, industry-leading technology to give users unparalleled access to our world-class content.”

It could serve as a trial run for Disney’s interest in launching a similar direct-to-viewer service for content from its motion picture empire.

However, those who already pay for ESPN will lose streaming access they currently have to some events that aren’t on any of the ESPN outlets (including ESPN, ESPN2, ESPNU, SEC Network). ESPN now puts such events, including a lot of college basketball from mid-major conferences such as the Missouri Valley, on its ESPN3 and WatchEspn streaming services for no extra charge. Some of that content is expected to move to ESPN+.

But games from the “Power Five” conferences — Southeastern, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 and Atlantic Coast — are not expected to be on the new offering.

Streaming of programming that is on ESPN’s networks is to remain available without an additional charge.

ESPN+ is expected to carry an average of about one MLB and NHL game a day (hockey starting next season) and many off-Broadway college events such as baseball, softball, golf, soccer, track & field, gymnastics, swimming diving, lacrosse, wrestlin and volleyball.