On Friday night, thousands of Royals fans will turn on their TV sets through their local cable or satellite provider to watch the Royals take on the White Sox. Some fans will stream the game on their tablet or phone through the Fox Sports Go app (although cable authentication is still required). Cord-cutters like myself will watch the game through the streaming service Sling TV. And out-of-towners can stream the game with a subscription to MLB TV.
But if you don’t have cable or satellite, and you don’t subscribe to Sling TV, MLB TV, or any other streaming services, you will have another option Friday night - Facebook. The website where people post pictures of their kids, play Farmville, and express bizarre political rants, is now the home of Royals baseball, at least for one night. Facebook, in a partnership with MLB, will air one MLB game each Friday night, completely free from any blackouts. The Royals and White Sox will air here with the home team’s feed, meaning you can watch Rex Hudler and Ryan Lefebvre and the Fox Sports Kansas City telecast.
Is this the future of sports broadcasting, or at least baseball broadcasting? With ESPN having its struggles, some have suggested the World Wide Leader may get out of paying exorbitant rights fees for live sports, or at least cut back, putting doubt that baseball can get another $5.6 billion deal from them when the current rights expire in 2021. National ratings have been slumping for years, and while FOX enjoys the prestige of carrying the World Series, is it enough for them to continue paying billions for the sport?
Even regional sports networks, which have been thriving due to baseball, have seen ratings dip this year. One factor could be the fact that fewer homes are carrying cable or satellite. There are still streaming options without cable or satellite, but they still require agreements with television networks like Fox.
When online streaming channels like Netflix, Amazon and Hulu encountered resistance from content providers like Fox and CBS, they decided to provide their own original content, and have been wildly successful doing so. Now, Amazon has decided to take the plunge into live sports, inking a deal with the NFL that will allow them to stream Thursday night games this year.
If Fox and ESPN pass on the next round of negotiations with MLB, could we see Netflix become the primary rights-holder? Or will MLB decide to keep everything in house with its valuable MLB Advanced Media streaming games
Live sports may not be a good fit for many of these streaming services however. Live sports are attractive because they require the audience to sit through commercial breaks, unlike scripted shows which they can watch later and fast-forward through ads. But Facebook balked at the NFL requesting ads for games when the two had talks about games streaming there, and Facebook will not allow ads for MLB broadcasts. Streaming services like Netflix and Amazon are already subscription-based, however, Amazon is looking to reap millions from advertisers for NFL games.
More importantly, do people want to watch a sports game on Facebook? Most fans prefer to watch games on television, particularly older fans, which make up a majority of baseball’s viewers. But what about the next generation? My kids don’t watch TV. I wish I could say it’s because they are always nose-deep in a book, but rather they enjoy watching Youtube videos on their tablets. I’m not even sure they know how to turn on the TV.
I would not expect games to disappear from the boob tube anytime soon. But the landscape of how we consume media and entertainment is changing rapidly. Baseball seems to be positioning itself well to adapt to these new viewing habits. Will we see a day when Royals games are exclusively on Facebook? Probably not. But you may see more avenues to watch games - MLBTV, Twitter, Youtube, Netflix, and probably a few platforms that haven’t even been invented yet.
The important thing for baseball fans is that there is more access to watching games than ever before, and enough platforms willing to toss money at the sport to keep it thriving. Royals fans will continue to watch their boys in blue in droves, whether the are on their local cable provider or Facebook.