What’s the deal behind Apple TV’s deal to show baseball games? We Asked MLB

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Dodgers fans wave souvenir towels during a World Series game at Dodger Stadium in 2017. Friday’s game between the Dodgers and the Cincinnati Reds will be available on Apple TV+. (Allen J. Schaben/Los Angeles Times)

For decades, the way you watch your baseball team has been pretty much the same. You paid a cable or satellite company a monthly fee for a bunch of channels, many of which would never be watched.

Your team’s Regional Sports Network (or RSN) – SportsNet LA for the Dodgers, Bally Sports West for the Angels – was one such channel. If your team’s game has been selected for national broadcast – on ESPN, Fox, FS1, TBS or MLB Network – you can also find those channels in your package. You may need to research which channel will show the game of the day, but you have already paid to access it.

The bundled format is on the decline, with customers reluctant to pay for dozens of channels they never watch and streaming services offering the option to pay only for the programming you want to watch. There may no longer be a critical issue for Major League Baseball, where teams have grown accustomed to ever-increasing payouts from cable and satellite companies, all based on the concept that every subscriber at home would have to pay maybe $5 a month for a team, even though 95% of those customers don’t watch games.

As “cord cutters” cancel cable and satellite subscriptions, joining “never cord” youth to watch TV through streaming services, MLB this year launched streaming deals with Apple TV+ for Friday night games and Peacock for Sunday morning games. These games are not available anywhere else. You may already be paying for SportsNet LA but, if the Dodgers are playing on Apple TV+ or Peacock, you can’t watch on SportsNet LA.

If you’re a New York Yankees fan on a cable or satellite package, you’ll still have to pay extra for Apple TV+, Peacock, and Amazon Prime if you want to watch every Yankees game this season.

The Apple deal is worth $85 million a year to MLB, according to Forbes. The average annual value of all of the league’s domestic broadcast deals — ESPN, Fox, TBS, Apple TV+ and Peacock — is $2 billion.

The Angels played on Apple TV+ last Friday. The Dodgers play on Apple TV+ this Friday. It made it a good time to check in with MLB Chief Revenue Officer Noah Garden on behalf of the many fans who wonder why the league seems to have made it harder for consumers to watch its product.

(Interview has been edited.)

Why does the Apple deal make sense for MLB?

We looked for ways to increase the reach of our games nationally. And even in the local market, the traditional linear beam has been under pressure. On top of that, you have the combination of cord-cutting and, more importantly, cord-never. And so the opportunity to have a partner like Apple, who can distribute our product – in this case, double titles on Friday nights – to a huge national but also international audience is something that appealed to us.

The other big thing for us, at least initially, is that it’s free, in front of a paywall. You don’t need to be an Apple+ subscriber to access it. We are very excited about this.

Free, for a limited time. (Apple has promised free games until June 24 but may require a subscription after that.)

They have the ability to put it behind a paywall. It’s something I would probably expect them to do, on some level. It’s a decision they will make later.

Fans watch batting practice before a game between the Baltimore Orioles and the Milwaukee Brewers.
Fans watch batting practice before a game between the Baltimore Orioles and Milwaukee Brewers at Oriole Park in Camden Yards on Monday. (Julio Cortez/Associated Press)

As a fan, I might not be interested in your nationwide reach. I just want to watch my team play. Why does MLB think the Apple deal is good for fans?

First of all, every time you have a national game, take a local game of some importance and expose it to more people. So from our perspective, it’s going to reach a huge domestic and nationwide audience.

I hear what you are saying on the streaming side. But, if you look at what’s happened during the pandemic and behavior with streaming in general, it’s become mainstream. Look at the Oscars. “CODA” has just won the [best picture] Oscar. It is a film that has only been released via streaming.

I think the conversation from a few years ago, “Hey, you’re streaming something and it’s somehow going to negatively impact viewership”, I don’t think that no longer reality. That’s certainly not what we’re seeing, across a wide variety of content.

In this case, Apple reaches every home, with its products and its application. Taking some of these games and making them national just gives more people a chance to watch them.

Is this the wave of the future, the beginning of the end of the bundle? If I want to watch my team play all their games, will I eventually need five, six or seven separate streaming subscriptions?

Everything is important. The linear is always the most important for us.

I think what you’re seeing on the streaming side is just an acknowledgment that there are a lot of people who stand out. Take LA, for example. This RSN is not even distributed to everyone in LA [Cox Cable does not carry SportsNet LA.]

When you’re talking about a local audience that you’re trying to reach, if you take some of these national games, the idea is to reach a much larger audience. That’s the point. If we didn’t think that would be the effect, we certainly wouldn’t. We don’t want fewer people to watch our content.

I never thought my mom would call me and say, “Have you watched ‘Ozark’ on Netflix?” I didn’t think she would ever find Netflix. But, when everyone was stuck at home during the pandemic, they started consuming whatever content they could find, and now it’s second nature. We believe streaming has reached that critical mass, where putting exclusive domestic games out there is going to add to everything we do and reach the widest possible audience.

The Dodgers’ debut at Apple comes on Jackie Robinson Day, when the Dodgers and the league celebrate his legacy and promote all that has been done to ensure his legacy continues. Why is MLB putting the Dodgers on Apple that day when fans might have trouble finding the broadcast?

It’s one of the most important pieces of Major League Baseball, historically. We celebrate Jackie and her broken barriers 75 years ago. Being able to take that and show it to the masses on a national level has more impact from where we’re sitting.

Look, the schedule turned out the game was Friday night, so we had that opportunity. But it wasn’t like we made a deal for Jackie Robinson Day. We made a deal for “Friday Night Baseball,” and it turned out to be Jackie Robinson Day, and we had a great opportunity ahead of us to take a game that has such historic significance and bring it to a much larger audience. than if we went local with the broadcast.

This story originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.

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