No one is yet sure what role digital outlets will play in sports media rights battles of the future, but they are very much a part of the present, even if everything still is in the experimental phase.
Hence Wednesday’s Mets-Nationals game, which will be carried exclusively on YouTube as part of the 14-game, second-half-of-the-season package in the video goliath’s deal with Major League Baseball.
MLB dipped its toes into these waters in 2018, when it exclusively streamed 25 games on Facebook, starting with a Mets-Phillies game last April.
But eight games into the YouTube version, it seems to have created less confusion and consternation than that first Mets game did, perhaps because the concept no longer is new, and perhaps because it is so frictionless.
Unlike with Facebook, there is no signup process.
Tim Katz, YouTube’s head of sports partnerships, said that while there has been “a little bit of change aversion” among fans unaccustomed to watching on a stream, “generally once people are there we’ve seen really positive feedback.”
Katz said one key has been the strength and reliability of the streams themselves, as well as the lack of advertising. The latter enables YouTube to provide more content, such as longer manager interviews, during breaks.
For MLB, the YouTube package allows for experimenting further with streaming, while also trying to reach new, presumably younger fans.
Erin Teague, head of product for YouTube sports, said the dual goals of making traditional fans comfortable and attracting new ones was a key part of the planning process.
“We want to make the experience easy to get to for everyone,” she said. “We view this as an opportunity to increase the audience across the board. I think that’s really important.”
MLB Network will produce the game, with Scott Braun as play-by-play announcer, Al Leiter and Nationals announcer F.P. Santangelo as analysts and Lauren Shehadi as the in-game reporter.
Teague said that, while it was important to produce the game in a way that traditional fans would accept, another goal was to “add in some cool elements on top of that” for newer ones.
For example, there will be a live chat during the game featuring YouTube content creators with an interest and/or experience in baseball, along with representatives from the two teams and MLB. But that feature easily is turned off for those who find it distracting.
Katz noted that historically YouTube has not offered much live sports, “which is the most premium content that exists out there,” so this is a way to provide more quality content for its users.
As for what might come next and whether digital outlets such as YouTube might battle television networks for sports rights, Katz would not speculate. But these games are providing a trove of experience and data about audiences.
“For us, I think it’s really interesting to test and learn,” he said.
And so far, at least, there has been relatively little complaining, given the dramatic change it involves for many viewers.
Said Katz, “The lack of negativity has been really encouraging for us.”