How Baseball's Digital Arm Generates 10 Million Streams a Day
Bob Bowman's MLB Advanced Media not only manages the league's industry-leading OTT service and mobile app, it also handles streaming for HBO, WWE and more, covering 25,000 yearly events.
A version of this story first appeared in the Oct. 30 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
Most baseball fans know that MLB offers a great digital product, streaming nearly all games via its over-the-top subscription service, MLB.tv, and its At Bat mobile app. But fans might not know that MLB Advanced Media, the digital arm of MLB that is owned equally by the 30 MLB teams, has become a leader in streaming video for nonbaseball services. MLBAM handles the backend for everything from ESPN's streaming app to HBO Now to WWE matches, Turner's March Madness college basketball tournament coverage and NHL games (the six-year deal, revealed in 2014, has MLBAM paying the NHL $100 million annually for rights to all NHL digital platforms, with the NHL taking a 10 percent stake in MLBAM).
Presiding over it all is Bob Bowman, president and CEO of MLB Advanced Media, which now streams 25,000 live events every year, with 10 million streams daily. Bowman and his team — MLBAM's 1,000 employees work on three floors of Manhattan's sprawling Chelsea Market, a converted Nabisco factory — make sure that baseball is consumed on every conceivable digital platform, including Twitter, Snapchat and Vine, with the goal that the game follows fans wherever they are and on every platform they use. MLBAM has created the top-grossing sports app ever with At Bat, and Bowman says he is meeting with investors (as many as 20 "real players, bona fide players," he boasts) in anticipation of spinning off Advanced Media some time next year.
At the same time, Bowman also is busy leveraging baseball's rich history for other content-based projects that he hopes can thrive outside the universe of the sport's avid fans. For instance, MLB has generated its first in-house scripted television project: a miniseries about Babe Ruth produced and directed by Allen Coulter (The Sopranos) that it soon will pitch to networks.
Bowman sat down with THR to talk about MLBAM's platform-agnostic approach, the league's vision for a tech spinoff and which other digital sports rights he'd like to snag.
You worked for a long time with Commissioner Bud Selig, before Rob Manfred was named to succeed him last January. How are they different?
There are three big things. One is geography. The decision process is faster because [Commissioner Manfred] is closer and because he sees it all. Second, he is educating himself along the way. Commissioner Selig had done it for a long time, seen the movie twice. It's not like [Manfred] is down in the weeds, but he is informing himself before he makes a decision. He's really interested in how and why the machine works. And the third thing is he embraces technology. He loves it, uses it, expects it, wants it, has children who use it. And so he understands and appreciates and expects the wonder of technology.
MLB Advanced Media has been very proactive in the digital space, which is populated by the young. But are millennials really watching baseball games on their phones?
Are they really going to watch three hours on a phone? The answer is no. They don't do anything for three hours. But baseball is a perfect snacking commodity for this new generation. Obviously in October outcomes matter, but in June the score of the game is rarely the narrative. Something happened during the game, that's the narrative. They're interested in the narrative as much as the score. I think we all are.
How do you create those narratives?
With lots of people. We've got a thousand employees here and we've got 35, 40 people that only do social media. They’re allocated to certain teams, they understand the teams, some of them are actually embedded with the team. So that's their prism. Sometimes they are trying to start the conversation. They are not always trying to follow. We spend probably too much time worrying about it. But every word, every headline you write matters, and what you say on social media matters. You're MLB so you can't say, "Oh, I'll take down the post, we made a mistake." You've got to be right. You're trying to stir things up, you're trying to point things out, but you always have a celebratory view of the game.
But social media can be a little bit …
It can be dark. People say amazing things on social media. They used to call them message boards. You would never go to a message board because it's brutal. You don't want to get twisted in it. But you’ve got to be on every platform.
You’re lining up investors to spin off BAM Tech some time next year. How is that going?
We're operators. We run the lemonade stand; we're not really good at presenting. We don't usually talk about our business, we just kind of do it. So the management team is getting better, but I think we'll never be good at it. What's fun is listening to investors. And they come from all walks of life — strategic, financial, long-term financial, family — 20 different ones showing interest, real players, bona fide players. And so listening to them and what they're interested in is interesting. Where it all goes, how it all ends? Beats the hell out of me.
What do you want out of the partnership?
There is an over-the-top world developing. It's not the enemy of pay TV, it is the friend of pay TV; it is a different form of pay TV. If you think about it, we're not talking about giving anything away for free: We sell subscriptions. It's just not an aggregated pay TV product, it's a la carte. And so the question is, how do you do it? We were the first sport on iPhone; we've been doing this as long as anybody. And we have deep-seated views on what apps should and shouldn't do. Our app generates 1.1 billion minutes [per month], more minutes per month than ESPN does. Apps matter in this world, particularly among the millennials because that's how they compartmentalize their lives. So we have strong views on this. Some in the traditional pay TV market think OTT is the enemy. I don't think that's healthy [or] accurate. So that's our view. The partner that the board picks and the commissioner picks will have that shared vision.
How aggressive is MLB going into that scripted space?
I think it's important that you tell a story that is not always just today's story. I think people appreciate history in everything, maybe more so in baseball than some sports. And certainly some of the baseball players that have played on our fields are larger than life. Babe Ruth is an obvious one, but there are a lot of others. One thing that we're trying to do is create content that isn't game-related content, but content that is longer form and can live on other platforms, that's good enough to live on the platforms that casual baseball fans might frequent more often than an MLB.com product.
Would MLB consider dramatizing some of the unsavory chapters in the sport's history, like the steroid scandal and Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire's drug-fueled 1998 home run record chase?
I don't think we'd lead with that. You always want to put your best foot forward. There's always another side to the story no matter how apparent it appears. I think the thought is you'd lead with things that may educate a new generation as to what baseball is. It isn't just a game that's played outdoors; it has a history. It has been here as long as Lincoln. It's a pretty interesting history.
Are there things that other leagues are doing in the media marketing space that you think are smart and baseball could do?
It's an interesting question. We think every league is optimizing its value and doing the right thing, but I think the leagues are so different that we have to pursue different strategies. I think in general we like the fact that we're everywhere but we still sell our content so we're not going to put it all up there for free, but 95, 96 percent of our content is out there for free. But everyone does it right, and we all do it slightly differently. I think everyone is doing a great job.
MLBAM is streaming NHL games. But the NBA packaged its streaming rights with its TV deals with ESPN and Turner. Would you have liked to get the NBA digital rights?
Absolutely. We called [former] Commissioner [David] Stern regularly, and while he is a terrific human being and did a phenomenal job for the NBA that was never going to happen.
Why not? You guys obviously have a track record in that business.
I think that most leagues want to manage it themselves. [NHL] Commissioner [Gary] Bettman took a bold step to partner with another league.
Did you ever talk to the NFL about managing their digital business?
When Commissioner [Roger] Goodell announced he was going to do the one game, I did call him and say we’re happy to stream it. [Yahoo won the rights to stream the Oct. 25 Buffalo Bills-Jacksonville Jaguars matchup from London. It will be the first live global webcast of a regular season game.] And they said, "OK, don't call us, we'll call you." (Laughs.) And then when they sold to Yahoo, I called him back and said does this mean we're out? It's all in good fun.