Digital arm of baseball swings for the fences

Technology: Taking advantage of the Internet, pro baseball unveils services that cater to fans of the national pastime.

May 23, 2002|By Leslie Brooks Suzukamo | Leslie Brooks Suzukamo,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

Major League Baseball is playing hardball on - a premier example of the Internet's move from free to fee-based content.

If you like your Web free, that's bad news. But if you're a hardcore fan with a streak of geek in you, you might be impressed by how one of sports' bastions of tradition has leveraged the unique capabilities of the Internet this year.

Like last year, webcasts of radio play-by-play will cost you - $14.95 this season, up from the $9.95 that baseball charged in its inaugural year in 2001. "Gameday Audio" lets listeners tune to 2,400 radio broadcasts - every baseball game - picking your choice of the home or away team's play-by-play.

But there's more. For the first time, for $4.95 a month, MLB is offering "Condensed Games," a way to watch an entire baseball game in about 20 minutes.

Using digital technology, Condensed Games only shows the pitches that result in an out, a hit or a run scored.

Purists will cringe, but Jim Gallagher - spokesman for MLB Advanced Media, the company that MLB formed last year to run its online operations - calls it "the ultimate highlight reel."

Did we say highlight reel? MLB has that, too - Highlights Direct for $4.95 a month.

You can program it to show you highlights of up to 15 players from a single team or across all the league's rosters.

It'll appeal to Fantasy Baseball fans who want to keep track of their make-believe teams.

"Press Pass" is a stat junkie's dream, giving fans the same pre-game team notes baseball writers receive.

"Baseball's Best" lets you watch on videotape or streaming video classic matches, including Game 6 of the 1991 World Series where the Minnesota Twins' Kirby Puckett slammed his game-winning ninth-inning homer, and the 1965 Twins' win over the Los Angeles Dodgers' Sandy Koufax in Game 2 of that World Series.

Audiocasts of classic games from the radio broadcasts of the 1930s and '40s are coming later this season, too, but all will cost you.

Or for $9.95 a month, you can subscribe to everything in "The Total Package."

Access to general content on the site is still free but the extras are seen by baseball as a new way to make money. Last year, MLB signed up 125,000 subscribers to its premium services, including 115,000 for Game Day audio alone, Gallagher said.

This year, MLB Advanced Media expects to double the number of audio subscribers and pull in 20,000 Condensed Game subscribers, he said.

To give a rough idea of the money to be made, that translates potentially into $4.1 million in revenue, if you count individual subscriptions to the two services for a seven-month baseball season from April to October and assume no total package subscriptions, which would dilute that amount.

The league's 30 teams each agreed to give the online effort $1 million every year for four years to support the new venture, creating a potential $120 million start-up fund, Gallagher said.

It lost money last year adding new technology, but the venture expects to make a profit in the "single-digit millions" this year, Gallagher said.

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