MLB.com Turns to Pay-Per-Listen for Web Broadcasts

If you turn to the Web for play-by-play broadcasts of your favorite baseball team, Major League Baseball has a little message for you: no more freeloading.

Taking a page from the book of the National Basketball Association, which has used the pay-per-listen model for the last four years, Major League Baseball has inked a pact with Seattle-based RealNetworks to implement the subscription plan.

New York-based Major League Baseball Advanced Media (MLBAM), the league’s digital arm, said webcasts for the full 162-game season would be available through its subscription-only plan on the MLB.com and Real.com Web sites.

Sign-ups through the MLB.com site would pay $9.95 for the full season and MLBAM plans to lure paying listeners by offering a $10.00 coupon to spend at its online store, a give-back ploy used successfully by casinos selling bus trips.

The fee-based audio service would be available on April 2, the first regular season game this year between the Chicago White Sox and the Cleveland Indians at Jacobs Field.

For RealNetworks, the deal is an outright steal. The company, which builds the RealPlayer, and other popular streaming software, will pay $20 million for three years of exclusive Web broadcast of baseball games. For that fee, the company has the potential to put its media player – and its advertising — in front of millions of rabid baseball fans worldwide.

More importantly, the deal means that competing media players won’t be used to access baseball broadcasts on the Web. By preventing competitors from offering the service, RealNetworks gets an exclusive vehicle to serve advertising, a huge part of its revenue stream.

RealNetworks plans to charge $4.95 monthly for the baseball broadcasts and $9.95 a month for access to its GoldPass network, which includes NBA (professional basketball) games. By contrast, the NBA.com charges $29.95 for a full 82-game season of Web broadcasts, plus the playoffs.

In just seven months, company said more than 175,000 subscribers have signed up for the GoldPass service, which provides content, premium services and software. GoldPass subscribers also get Webcasts of NBA.com TV.

The company said the pay-per-listen fee includes a free copy of the RealPlayer Plus player, which is normally priced at $30.00.

RealNetworks also unveiled plans to include enhanced coverage of the games by embedding MLBAM’s written play-by-play, synchronized game statistics and pitch-by-pitch animation, features that are sure to drive subscriptions for the baseball fan on the move. Disney-owned ESPN.com also offers a similar pitch-by-pitch animation for free.

The two sides hail the agreement represents the “largest Internet deal in the history of professional sports.”

“[This agreement] is intended to make subscription services a central part of efforts to improve the way fans listen to and watch Major League Baseball over the Internet,” MLBAM said in a statement.

In the future, the two sides plan to offer subscribers the ability to search for and create video highlights of daily game coverage. The video highlights service would be available in May.

“By providing archival access to every pitch from every game, this personalized video service will let individual subscribers choose the exact game highlights they want to watch.”

MLBAM, which is funded by the league’s 30 baseball owners, was launched in June 2000 to handle the MLB’s Internet operations.

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