Baseball fans boo Webcast fee plan

Dispute: While enthusiasts and WBAL decry a soon-to-be implemented charge, league officials defend it as a bargain for new features.

April 02, 2001|By Michael James | Michael James,SUN STAFF

A plan by Major League Baseball to charge listeners for Internet broadcasts of its games has WBAL radio in Baltimore yelling foul and accusing baseball officials of commandeering its play-by-play signal.

Nor are expatriate fans happy about the plan, announced last week, which would require listeners who want to tune in to games over the Web to pay a minimum annual fee of $9.95.

Under the new subscription deal between baseball executives and Seattle-based RealNetworks, paying fans would have to visit one of two Web sites, www.mlb.com or www.real.com, in order to get the Web audiocasts, which are now carried free of charge by local radio stations such as WBAL.

Baseball officials maintain that the deal is fair to both fans and team owners, who believe the game broadcasts are valuable content and shouldn't be given away. But station owners could be gearing up for a fight.

Jeff Beauchamp, vice president and station manager for WBAL radio, said he wants fans to know that despite Major League Baseball's intentions, www.WBAL.com still plans to offer the audiocasts for free on its Web site (http://wbal.com).

"You're going to be able to listen to the Orioles on opening day on WBAL.com, come hell or high water," Beauchamp said. "This latest deal is just another example of Major League Baseball not being able to get out of its own way when it comes to making decisions. In order for them to do what they're saying, it means they're going to just take our signal. They want us to just give it to them for nothing."

He added, "This is baloney. We pay for play-by-play announcers and pay the production costs. If they want to go out and hire a play-by-play crew and put them in 30 Major League Baseball stadiums around the country, then I have no problem with it. But to just take our broadcasts isn't right."

Radio Webcasts, now offered by every major league club, broadcast over the Internet using streaming audio technology that delivers real-time digital sound. Internet broadcasts of baseball games have a small but diehard following of fans whose favorite teams are in other states and who can't get those games on the radio. Some local fans who use computers at their jobs also enjoy the convenience.

For the past three seasons, any baseball fan with an Internet connection could tune in to a game in another city, state, or even from outside the country with a click of a mouse - at no charge. The deal signed last week will change that by charging for a season-pass ID number that fans will have to type in order to hear the game.

The plan was chiefly engineered by Major League Baseball Advanced Media, baseball's online arm, which was created last year after the organization's 30 franchise owners agreed to centralize their Internet operations.

Jim Gallagher, a spokesman for Major League Baseball Advanced Media, said the company "has tried to price what we feel is valuable content in a very affordable way. We're talking about pennies a game. For the price of less than a seat costs, you get all the games."

As for WBAL's concerns, Gallagher said he believes radio stations are being treated fairly and will get a wider audience under the terms of the new arrangement.

"The local advertising will still be on our feeds, and there are costs associated with audio Webcasts that individual stations will no longer have to bear. We will," he declared. "There is no impact on the teams, if anything they get the benefit of a significantly larger audience."

Gallagher said the $9.95 fee will give fans access to roughly 4,000 home and away audio feeds. They will also get a $10 gift certificate from baseball's online store.

"We're looking at it that we're giving away the subscription for free, when you factor in the value of the coupon," he said. "We've been highly sensitive to the pricing."

RealNetworks, which is paying close to $20 million in cash and services over three years for baseball's Webcast rights, has a different pricing plan for its subscription. The company is charging $4.95 per month for Webcasts of all baseball games, with a minimum commitment of six months - in other words, an upfront charge of $29.70.

Real justifies the extra expense by throwing in "synchronized statistics" during the Webcasts, which means fans can watch stats pop up in windows as the game is broadcast. The subscription includes a copy of the company's RealPlayer Plus software - which retails for $30, said David Brotherton, a RealNetworks spokesman.

"The RealPlayer Plus is a higher-tier audio program than what you'd normally get, and we think it makes sense to package that and the subscription together," Brotherton said. "We haven't heard much from sports fans complaining."

They're certainly complaining elsewhere. Dean Horvath, a 43-year-old information systems manager, is a transplanted Cleveland Indians fan who lives in Carroll County.

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