Today and next Tuesday, I’ll be taking a look back at 2009 from the perspective of the baseball content available to Brits.
The second article will focus on TV coverage of baseball and that was a largely disappointing tale, as you will know all too well. Those problems made the online offerings from MLB.com all the more important for Brits wanting to follow the MLB season and thankfully that amounted to a much more positive story.
The release of the MLB.TV subscription charges is a much-anticipated event among baseball fans and the anticipation was ended on 5 February this year when the 2009 season prices were announced. It was a mixed result for Brits. The good news was that MLB.com had decided to drop the prices of both MLB.TV Premium and MLB.TV by $10; however, the fluctuating dollar/pound exchange rate meant that we would still have to pay more for the products in 2009 than we had twelve months before. MLB.TV increased by just under £8 (£54.60, $80) for an annual subscription, while MLB.TV Premium increased by £13 (£75, $110). Ten months on and a quick currency converter check shows that the rate has turned in our favour, with over half of the increase having been wiped off already (at the same dollar price, MLB.TV would be £49.20 and MLB Premium £67.67). So, we can be grateful that the unprecedented dollar price reduction eased our exchange rate woes this year and that the subscriptions are likely to be cheaper in 2010 if the product price stays the same.
The main change to MLB.TV in 2009 was a fundamental one. Gone was the Microsoft Silverlight platform, replaced by the tried and tested Adobe Flash player. Not being a techy, the intricacies of this wizzed over my head and, as seemingly one of the few who didn’t have a problem with the Silverlight player, the switch didn’t have a large impact on the service for me. It generally worked fine once a few gremlins had been sorted out immediately after the new player was launched, although the in-player box score and game summary areas often stopped updating after the first time I had looked at them during a game.
Several new features were added to MLB.TV for 2009. Premium subscribers were able to pause and rewind live broadcasts, while archived games could now be searched using the top and bottom half of each inning rather than needing to scroll along the time bar, with only the time indicator allowing you to guess where in the game you had got to. The biggest improvement based on my experience was the addition of a Feed Quality selector. MLB.TV subscribers could switch between four different levels of picture quality, with Premium subscribers able to ramp up the quality by a further three clicks after switching to the NexDef mode to get a HD quality picture (if your bandwidth could cope without inducing lots of buffering). If you found that the picture was getting choppy on a given night, you were no longer forced to throw your hands up in despair and abandon the feed: you could try turning the picture quality down by a notch or two. Invariably that would fix the problem and you could continue watching the game, albeit in a slightly fuzzier form. I don’t have the fastest internet connection and found this feature extremely useful throughout the season.
Gameday Audio is a simple service, but that’s a large part of its appeal. Without a load of bells and whistles, or relatively demanding bandwidth requirements, you can listen live to any MLB game you want for an annual charge of just $15. The only knock against Gameday Audio in the past has been that the sound quality of the feeds were often quite poor. Although the crackle and noise could produce a comforting recreation of listening to a transistor radio under the bed covers, the streaming of clear audio over the internet is now common place and to be expected, especially for a subscription-based product.
Thankfully, the audio streams were greatly improved this year. This may have been influenced by the higher profile they received through the new Gameday Premium service and the standard media player that allowed you to easily move from the MLB.TV feed of a game to the audio versions. The audio was much clearer than in the past and the improvement was made without switching to a streaming rate that ravenously devoured your bandwidth. MLB.com even introduced an ‘accessible Gameday’ feature which meant you didn’t have to launch the media player to be able to listen to the audio if you didn’t want to. The changes amounted to a better product without any negative side affects.
The Gameday application has undergone significant changes over the last couple of seasons and this year a subscription version was finally launched: Gameday Premium. For $20, you got the standard Gameday goodness as well as additional ‘scouting’ information, video highlight clips (that were in the free ‘Gameday Enhanced’ in 2008) and the option to listen to the Gameday Audio feeds through the Gameday application. The latter feature was the most notable one because Gameday Audio fans had previously struggled to tie up their sound to the Gameday application graphics. Gameday Premium didn’t do this perfectly either, which was no real surprise because synchronizing each pitch would be a complex task. I thought the system worked quite well. The sound was ahead of the graphics by a pitch, sometimes two, but that wasn’t too bad and it saved the hassle of having two applications open.
As Gameday Audio alone was $15, whether it was worth paying the extra $5 for Gameday Premium really came down to a decision on what price you would pay for the convenience of having the two together in one application. The “real-time batter vs. pitcher scouting reports” data didn’t add a whole lot to the Gameday application for me, which was a shame as it sounded like something that would appeal to me, and it wouldn’t be something I would specifically pay extra for in its current form.
As well as the subscription content, MLB.com continued to provide a whole host of video and audio features for free. Individual highlight packages were available for every game once again, a feature that had replaced the well-liked Daily Rewind show (which brought together all of the highlights from a day’s play) in 2008. One downside to the individual ‘Rewind’ approach was that you couldn’t easily replicate the old Rewind show and watch back-to-back the highlights from every game played on a given day. This was especially annoying because it seemed like there was a very simple way to solve this: clearly attaching the game date on every ‘Rewind’ (either in the title or as a tag). Thankfully they did eventually add the game dates during the season.
The Rewinds were complemented by the Fastcast news clips along with features culled from the new MLB Network, MLB’s own TV channel, that was launched last year. A ‘live look ins’ feature was added to the scoreboard page, occasionally taking you into the MLB.TV live stream of a game for a half-inning or so, and MLB.com continued its practice of allowing free live access to notable moments, such as when Mark Buerhle closed in on his perfect game.
One of the stated benefits of moving to a Flash player was the creation of a separate desktop-based application using Adobe Air that would offer highlights and stats without the need to open a web browser. It wasn’t launched at the beginning of the season with the rest of the subscription content and most subscribers would have completely forgotten about it by the time MLB On Base actually arrived at the very end of the regular season. It was released so late that I didn’t get a chance to have a proper look at it, but maybe it will rise from the ashes in 2010.
MLB.com also specifically mentioned the ‘Condensed Games’ feature (a 10-20 minute highlights package for every game of every out and run-scoring play) in their 2009 subscription literature, noting the strength of feeling produced from fans when they had temporarily ditched them last year. Consequently it was particularly poor that the Condensed Games were nowhere to be found when the season started, with no explanation as to why they were absent. They eventually began to be added at the end of April; so better late than never, I suppose.
One other favourite feature of mine that wasn’t available at the start of the season and never appeared was the Gameday Audio podcast. This wrapped up all of the games from a given day in a downloadable mp3 file lasting around 20 minutes or so, including excerpts from the radio commentary of games and details of all the key individual performances. The benefit of a podcast is that pretty much anyone can download it quickly and enjoy it at a time and place convenient to them. I found it to be a great way to catch up on all of the action from the night before during my lunch break, so it was very disappointing to find that it had been discontinued for the 2009 season. Perhaps it wasn’t downloaded all that much, but it was well buried on the website and I only stumbled across it during the middle of last season. The other podcasts, such as the Fantasy 411 show are still there and I can’t help but feel that the Gameday Audio podcast would have been more successful if it had received even a small amount of promotion.
A good year overall
Those disappointments aside, MLB.com once again provided a wide variety of ways for baseball fans to follow the season, building on previous achievements and making improvements without (in most cases) losing the qualities that made the existing features popular in the first place.