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Baseball’s streaming obsession is pricing out the young fan

Baseball needs to be remember how their older fans got hooked on the game.

How does someone become a baseball fan?

For some kids, their mother or father loved baseball for years and wanted to share their love of the game with their child. For some kids, maybe it was a grandparent or an uncle or aunt. Other kids perhaps have a friend who lived across the street who was really into baseball and introduced them to the game. Baseball cards and video games could also have been a gateway to the National Pastime, and let’s not overlook all the wonderful books, both easy and challenging to read, that chronicle the long and crazy history of Major League Baseball in America.

There are a number of avenues to becoming a baseball fan, but one of the surest ways to foster a love of the game and learn more about it is to watch it. Attending live baseball games in the stadium is, of course, the most fun way to do that, but watching games on television is the surest way to hook a kid forever.

The problem today is baseball’s desire to extract every last penny out of every new streaming service in order to maximize profit over watchability.

In 1986, I was a 10-year-old boy from a lower-middle class family living in Brookhaven, PA. At the time, cable TV was a luxury. Not everyone had it and, growing up, I did not for the vast majority of my pre-teen and teen years. I watched baseball on free television, whether it be PHL 17, UPN, or whatever over-the-air channel had their deal with the Phillies at that time.

Well into the 1990s, all Phillies home games were on the pay-TV channel PRISM, so even if you could afford basic cable, you couldn’t see Phils home games unless you got that service, too. But all the team’s road games, 80+ every year, as well as every home Sunday game, were free for anyone to watch on “regular” TV.

You didn’t need to have a cable subscription. You didn’t need to put in a user name and password. All you needed to do was flip your over-the-air TV to the right channel, and you got 80-90 games of baseball into your home every year.

Today, there are almost no free games. The occasional Facebook game is streamed for free, and despite the quality of the broadcast not being awesome, it’s still free baseball. That’s a good thing. But just about every team has a big-money TV deal with local cable company that requires families to shell out well over $100 a month, sometimes much more than that, in order to get access to your baseball team’s games.

If you don’t want to pay for cable, you can get stations like NBC Sports Philadelphia by subscribing to YouTube TV, Sling TV, Hulu Live and fuboTV, but they all cost money, too. If you’re an out-of-market fan, like me, you likely spend $130 a season to get all your team’s games.

It’s a solid product if you can afford it, but if this environment existed when I was a kid, 10-year-old Johnny would have never become a baseball fan. I wouldn’t have been able to afford it.

Baseball’s reported deals with Peacock and Apple+ is the continuation of an obsession with streaming that accomplishes little more than putting millions of dollars into the pockets of ownership. The deal with Apple+ especially so because that streaming service doesn’t have the reach or popularity that Hulu, YouTube, Amazon Prime or Netflix has. It’s clear that Apple is jumping into the live sports arena in an attempt to catch up with those services, which makes sense for them, but it’s just one more price point families need to meet in order to watch baseball.

An Apple+ subscription if $4.99 a month. That doesn’t sound like a lot. But for some families, that $5 is going somewhere more important.

Of course, we’re long past the point where we get things for free anymore. It’s the way of the world. It’s just sad that a kid whose family can’t afford to pay for entertainment, who can’t pay for YouTube TV or Apple+ or anything else, is shut out from watching baseball. How great it would be if franchises understood that growing the game means allowing people to watch it.

I’m not saying every game should be free. I live in the real world. But there should be a package where a certain number of games are guaranteed free for everyone to watch, and not just 5-7 a year.

I understand why the owners have made the decisions they’ve made regarding TV rights. When someone is offering you billions of dollars to broadcast your product, how do you turn that down? And I understand 10-year-old kids aren’t sitting on their living room floors watching a live sporting event anymore. Kids are on their tablets, phones and laptops more than they are in front of a TV. We consume things in 4-minute chunks on YouTube and 2-minute fly-bys on TikTok. It’s a new world and baseball believes they’re doing what’s best for their future by inking deals with streaming services left and right.

The unfortunate consequence is that those people who still can’t afford to pay for that product simply won’t see it. Sure, they can see highlights the following day on MLB.com and YouTube, but it’s not the same as sitting down to enjoy the three hours of theater that Major League Baseball provides. And as someone with an 11-year-old son who does love to actually sit and watch baseball for hours at a time, I can assure you it is still possible for kids to do that.

If MLB execs truly want to grow the game and make the fanbase more diverse and younger, they’ve got to find a way to make it easier for people to see games for free and on platforms that more people have access to.