MLB has long been viewed as a pioneer in online broadcasting, with its successful MLB.TV streaming service used by WWE Network, WatchESPN and the PGA Tour to power their own offerings.
But reaction to the league’s latest venture has been mixed.
MLB agreed to a $30 million deal that let Facebook broadcast 26 regular-season games (25 exclusively) on its video service during the 2018 season, complete with real-time fan interaction. Supporters of the program enjoyed the community-driven features Facebook brought to the table. Critics balked at having to create a Facebook account in order to see their favorite teams, wishing they could watch games on TV instead of screens full of reaction emojis.
MLB regarded the first-of-its-kind exclusive broadcast agreement as an experiment in which the league would test the waters of producing its own broadcast online, rather than just simulcasting a TV feed.
Despite the criticism lobbed primarily from fans on social media, MLB and Facebook view the deal as a success. As a result, the partnership could continue in 2019.
“Based upon the dialogue that I’ve had with those at MLB and Facebook, I’m optimistic that there will be a Season 2 of MLB Live on Facebook Watch,” Michael Treanor, MLB producer of live events, told Sporting News. “The relationship between the two entities flourished and I’m hopeful that we’ll begin to hear rumblings of a new contract.”
MLB games on Facebook received 123 million views (defined as a person having the video open for at least three seconds), according to an SN analysis confirmed by Facebook. The early-season broadcast of a Royals-Blue Jays game earned the most views — 7.1 million — on the platform. Emoji reaction and comment tallies were more difficult to gauge because of a feature called crossposting, which creates new comment sections whenever a team promotes a broadcast feed from Facebook Watch.
The average viewer age for the Facebook broadcasts was close to 20 years younger than average viewer age on traditional TV, an MLB spokesman said.
That doesn’t mean there weren’t things that annoyed fans. For example, many complained the floating reaction emojis and other on-screen elements made for a cluttered viewing experience. MLB points out the emojis could be turned off by selecting “Quiet Mode” — a feature many fans seemed to be unaware of — and scoreboard graphic adjustments were made on the fly to accommodate feedback.
From a business standpoint, positive viewership metrics outweighed the fan and media criticism, Treanor said. He believes people became more accustomed to the broadcasts as the season went on.
“Because we as a people have been given the opportunity to comment on virtually anything via a keystroke, you’re always going to have those that voice their displeasure about something that irks them, no matter what it may be,” Treanor said. “I think avid fans of certain teams are accustomed to watching their team on their station with their announce team. It’s a difficult habit to break.”
Sports marketing analyst Bob Dorfman agreed that the relatively minor criticisms shouldn’t cloud the big-picture outlook.
“The viewership skewed younger, which for baseball is very important these days,” Dorfman told Sporting News. “Those numbers probably superseded and eased the pain of the negativity you’re hearing about Facebook. Ultimately, I think it was probably a good deal for [MLB].”
Dorfman initially thought the deal was “a terrible idea,” but once he realized having the games on Facebook allowed him to watch from work when he otherwise might not be able to follow, he understood the value of the streaming service.
“It actually became a convenience for me,” Dorfman said.
The exclusive Facebook broadcasts approached viewers differently than typical TV productions.
Broadcasters fielded comments and questions from Facebook viewers, often relaying those inquiries to managers and players during in-game interviews. The lack of commercials required them to fill additional airtime. Strategic moments such as bunts and pitching changes sparked passionate discussions between announcers and members of the comment section.
“It was cool that throughout the game fans could chime in,” said former Twins closer Glen Perkins, who was one of the many color commentators to appear in the booth. “You could see what they were saying, they had a TV screen set up where you could see the chat live. It was neat, it was a completely different element. I thought it was a lot more personal.”
MLB made sure the analysts on each broadcast were former players of the teams involved. Perkins, for example, only called Twins games, while Ryan Rowland-Smith called several Mariners contests.
Perkins used his inside knowledge of the Minnesota clubhouse to help call an Aug. 1 game between the Twins and Indians. Having worked with Twins starter Kyle Gibson the year before, Perkins asked Gibson in-depth questions about pitch selection and ways to put hitters away that a less-connected analyst would be unlikely to pose.
“I was able to jump in and just feel comfortable,” said Perkins, who told Sporting News he would like more broadcasting opportunities in the future.
MLB Network regular Scott Braun, meanwhile, provided a consistent voice for Facebook viewers as the primary play-by-play man. Rich Waltz filled in for Braun on select broadcasts.
“It felt very interactive,” Braun told Sporting News. “That’s how it felt when [the partnership] was first presented, and it really played out that way. To be able to have a manager on during a game and players on during a game and then get fans to ask questions, that was so cool to me.”
It was cool, too, for Facebook to receive a rush of new viewers on its Facebook Watch service, which launched in 2017 and had been searching for ways to get subscribers together in a communal setting. In MLB, it found a partner motivated to make the most of its platform.
“This past season’s experiment with Major League Baseball delivered some great results and key learnings,” a Facebook spokesman told SN in an email. “It helped the league reach a younger audience and build community, and demonstrated the potential of live sports on Facebook Watch with broadcasts that enabled fans to participate in the action.”
While Dorfman wasn’t sure whether exclusive streaming deals are the future of sports broadcasting, he was confident about the role of social media in at least complementing traditional TV broadcasts, noting the wave of younger viewers choosing streaming deals over cable packages, and the decline of TV as a cultural gathering place.
Even as Facebook grappled with widespread criticism of its handling of user data, its ability to spread misinformation and the presence of shadow contact information on its platform, millions of users turned to Facebook Watch for MLB action, reflecting an appetite for the service.
“It certainly was a coup for Facebook to get that, as much as it pissed off a lot of people,” Dorfman said. “It helped their brand as a sports broadcaster and sports streamer.”
Dae Hee Kwak, who leads the University of Michigan’s Center for Sports Marketing Research, doesn’t think Facebook’s scandals affected audience opinion of the MLB streams.
Kwak’s research focuses on how emotion and experiential judgments influence consumers’ perceptions. He said tech glitches or other interruptions to the user experience matter much more to the average person than bigger-picture company misdoings.
“The idea that scandal with Facebook would decrease the demand for live streaming content is a bit far-fetched,” Kwak told Sporting News. “Certainly, it would be a very different story if Facebook fails to provide seamless streaming experiences for registered viewers.”
While there is no contractual agreement between MLB and Facebook currently in place to continue the partnership, MLB commissioner Rob Manfred said at a summit in May that he expects more collaboration.
“The MLB brand is one of the most recognizable in all the world,” Treanor said. “With technology now at the fingertips of virtually everyone, young and old alike, it’s important that we make that brand readily available across all visual mediums.”