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What’s the deal behind the Apple TV deal to stream MLB games?

For decades now, 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 you’ll never watch.

Your team’s regional sports network (or RSN) – SportsNet LA for the Dodgers, Bally Sports West for the Angels – was one of those channels. If your team’s game has been selected for national broadcast – on ESPN, Fox, FS1, TBS or MLB Network – you can also find these channels within your group. You may have to search for the channel that will broadcast that day’s game, but you’ve already paid for access to it.

The package format is on the decline, with customers refraining from paying for dozens of channels they’ve never watched and streaming services providing the opportunity to pay only for the programming they want to watch. There may be no more important concern for Major League Baseball, as teams are accustomed to increased payments from cable and satellite companies, all based on the concept that every home subscriber must pay perhaps $5 a month to the team, even if 95% of those Customers do not watch games.

As Wire Cutters cancels cable and satellite subscriptions, and joins “no young wires” in watching TV via streaming services, this year MLB launched live 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 pay 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 fan of the New York Yankees and have a cable or satellite package, you’ll still need to pay extra for Apple TV+, Peacock, and Amazon Prime if you want to watch all of the Yankees’ games this season.

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

I played The Angels on Apple TV+ last Friday. The Dodgers plays on Apple TV+ on Friday. That made this a good time to reach out to Noah Garden, MLB’s director of revenue, on behalf of the many fans who are wondering why the league is making it difficult for consumers to view its product.

(The interview has been edited.)

Why does the Apple deal make sense for MLB?

We were looking for ways to increase the reach of our games nationally. And even in the domestic market, the traditional linear package has come under pressure. On top of that, you have a mix of wire cutters and, most importantly, wire wormers. So the opportunity to have a partner like Apple, who can distribute our product – in this case, double-headed Friday nights – to a huge local audience as well as global ones is something we liked.

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

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 the paywall system. This is something I would probably expect them to, on some level, do. This is a decision they will make down the road.

Fans watch batting practice before a game between the Baltimore Orioles and the Milwaukee Brewers at Oriole Park at Camden Yards on Monday.

(Julio Cortez/The Associated Press)

As a fan, I may not care how far you reach nationally. I just want to watch my team play. Why does MLB think Apple’s deal is good for fans?

First of all, any time you play a national game, it requires a local game of some importance and exposes it to more people. So, from our point of view, you will reach a huge local and national audience.

I hear what you’re saying on the broadcast side. But, if you look at what’s happened in the pandemic, and the behavior with broadcasting in general, it’s becoming mainstream. Look at the Oscars. CODA just won the [best picture] Oscar. This is a movie that has only been broadcast.

I think the conversation I had a few years ago about, “Hey, you’re broadcasting something and it’s going to negatively affect viewership,” I don’t think that’s the reality anymore. This is definitely not what we see across a variety of content.

In this case, Apple reaches every home with its products and applications. Taking some of these games and making them patriotic gives more people the ability to watch them.

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

Everything is important. Linear streak is still the most important to us.

I think what you see on the streaming side is just the realization that there are a lot of people who fall outside the pack. Take Los Angeles, for example. RSN isn’t even distributed to everyone in Los Angeles [Cox Cable does not carry SportsNet LA.]

When you’re talking about a local audience you’re trying to reach, if you take some of these national games, the idea is to reach a much broader audience. This is the goal. If we don’t think this will be the effect, we certainly won’t. We don’t want fewer people watching our content.

I never thought my mother would call me and say, “Have you seen ‘Ozark’ on Netflix?” I didn’t think it would find Netflix at all. But, when everyone got stuck in their homes due to the pandemic, they started consuming every bit of content they could find, and now it’s normal. We feel that streaming has reached that critical mass, as putting exclusive national games there will add to everything we do and reach as wide an audience as possible.

The Dodgers’ Apple debut comes on Jackie Robinson’s Day, when the Dodgers and the league celebrate his legacy and promote all that has been done to ensure his legacy continues. Why would the MLB put the Dodgers on Apple on that day, when fans are having a hard time finding streaming?

This is one of the most important pieces in Major League Baseball, of a historical nature. We celebrate Jackie, breaking barriers 75 years ago. Being able to take that and show it to the masses at a national level is even more impactful, from where we’re sitting.

Listen, it turns out on the calendar that the match was Friday night, so we had this opportunity. But it wasn’t like we made a deal with Jackie Robinson Day. We made a “Friday Night Baseball” deal, it happened to be Jackie Robinson’s day, and we just happened to have a great opportunity to take a game of historical significance and bring it to a much wider audience than if we had started broadcasting locally.

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