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SABR 41: Media Panel: Baseball media in ten years

July 07, 2011 By: Cecilia Tan Category: SABR

SABR 41 MEDIA PANEL
“Where we’re going to be getting our baseball information a decade from now?”
moderated by SABR President Andy McCue

Panelists:
Bill Squadron, head of Bloomberg Sports, former pres. of Sportvision inventors of K-Zone
Russ Stanton, Editor of the Los Angeles Times
Sean Forman, Founder and Guru of Baseball-Reference.com
Dave Cameron, Managing Editor of FanGraphs.com

Andy (Moderator): 10 years ago I got up the morning and read the LA Times and then looked at the mailbox to see if Baseball America had arrived and when I had a question I would go to the bookshelf and pull down a copy of Total Baseball. Nowadays I still read the LA Times, but then I check on Fangraphs, and if I have a fact to check I probably go to Baseball-Reference, and I’m probably representative of people in this room. It’s changed a lot in the last ten years, what’s it going to be in the next ten years?

Bill: I’m going to answer this from more of a mass audience perspectives. With a lot of the analysis and data visualization we’re doing with technology we’re able to do some kinds of things that will hopefully be helpful and fascinating to the people in this room, but we also have our eye on a broader market as well. How will baseball fans broadly receive information in the future? I think to get a sense of how dramatically things are likely to change, the best way to do that is to begin by looking backwards. It’s very easy to fall into the trap of thinking about incremental change, but when you look over your shoulder and say how much change has taken place in the media over the past 30 years it’s been huge. If we’re being honest, we don’t know what the biggest changes are going to be in the next 30 years. Ten years ago there was no such thing as video other than through television. There was no mobile data experience. Now smart phones are outselling PCs. The main insight you receive from looking back is certainly more than just a cliche that truth is stranger than fiction. We all grew up on the Jetsons, but media change is going to even outstrip that. Some changes are likely to continue. The whole world of mobility is only going to increase. So whether that means notebook computers or mobile phones or what, it means more people getting what they want when they want it and where they want it. You’ll be able to designate the sources and devices that your data comes on, you’ll roll out of bed and it’ll all be there and you’ll be able to easily pull out further information at your fingertips. We’re not going to depart entirely from mass media, television and other broadly distributed content. One reason for that is economics. We have to have the mass market to have the funding to distribute it to everyone who wants it. We keep hearing about “merged devices” but sometimes these things take a little longer to come to pass. You can’t buy a television anymore that isn’t “Internet ready.” You’ll be able to watch a game on one side and the SABR website or a baseball research site on the other. I haven’t eve mentioned the whole rise of social media. No one had heard of Facebook 10 years ago and now they have 700 million participants. My generation is used to having media pushed to us, but the next generation is used to pushing it around among themselves. To close I’ll say I used to work for a cellular telephone companies. The phones were a huge brick and we were in a hearing to try to get the telephone band, and a lawyer got up and said well these are just a luxury item, no one but people driving Mercedes are going to have them. That was the conventional wisdom at the time, that only a very tiny percentage of people were going to use them.

Russ (LA Times): I agree with all of that. Anyone who says they know what its going to be in ten years is lying. Twitter wasn’t even a thing three years ago and now all our sportswriters are using it on a minute by minute basis. It’s hard for me to understand how we’re going to get information even faster than we do now, but we will. I already get a text alert every time the Dodgers score a run. Our website, ESPN, and many others have these pitch by pitch services. Readers have more choices today than they have at any point in history, but there’s also a greater demand for what we do than at any point in history. We are trying to stake ourselves out in areas you’d logically expect us to own. We consider ourselves the experts on all things Dodgers and all things Angels. We have the largest reporting staffs covering those two teams than anyone else.

Sean (BR.com): I have what’s already a huge database. Thanks to MLBAM we have a million pitches per season to track and now the Fieldf/x is generating millions and millions of data points per season. I think MLB is hiring tons and tons of reporters themselves, and Mark Cuban (basketball) even said why don’t we hire our own reporters, we can get the information to our fans just as well as the other media. So that’s one trend, with the teams and organizations taking over the reporting more and more.

Dave (Fangraphs): Well, Andy, I hope that soon you’ll be starting your morning with Fangraphs, and then when you need to look up a fact you’ll also come to Fangraphs… (laughter). The thing is, the old way if you had an idea you would call up your local sports talk radio and talk for seven seconds and then get hung up on, Maybe you got a letter published in the local paper. But then what happens now, you can have a platform for your ideas. We have a community section on FanGraphs, and then there are things like there’s some guy out there who writes about the Pittsburgh Pirates. And maybe he actually knows more about the Pirates than anyone else on earth. His blog will be where you’ll go when you need to know about the Pirates. But there is less of a culture of experts. The democratizing of ideas is only going to continue. Technology is tailor made to help people spread their ideas around.

Andy: OK, so but why aren’t you all in each other’s businesses?

Dave: I think we have complementary services. We have great respect for Baseball-reference.com, and hopefully they have respect for us, but our numbers are different from their numbers. We have some parts of the site that are quite different from theirs, too, like our NotGraphs section.

Sean: I think you’re just going to see more niches in the future not fewer. I haven’t been such a big fan of content. The content grind wasn’t really for me. So I like a database, as opposed to lots of new articles.

Russ: what I preach to our staff is that we have to stake out our turf. We would never try to compete with Baseball-Research on building a database. We want to stake out our niche. I don’t talk about the newsPAPER as a property, it’s about our newsROOM, and we reach readers wherever people want. Web traffic has quadrupled in four years and a (large portion) of that traffic is to the sports section. When those people come to our site we want to catch them with more information that would be unique.

Bill: In this country we don’t like having only a single source. I certainly saw this when we introduced the yellow line and Sportvision (on NFL broadcasts). Everyone signed with us except CBS, and they signed with a different company purely for that reason, “I don’t think it’s good to have only one company doing it.” There are low barriers to entry so lots of people can build platforms, but at the same time there are efficiencies in consolidation. We’ve signed up 19 of the teams for team-specific sites that are one-stop shopping.

Dave: I think objectivity has been devalued. It’s become less important. Do we need reporters to be objective, and would they if they were hired by the teams? Their objectivity would be in question, but they would have the inside track on injuries, on who’s in the lineup, on all the things that a typical fan wants to know?

Russ: In Philadelphia the papers have gone through a very trying time. I think there’s going ot be some upset where news comes from. MLB Trade Rumors and Baseball THink Factory are great, but they are aggregating a lot of news… which comes from newspapers. If those newspapers go away, what happens?

Bill: The economic model that supported objectivity in investigative journalism isn’t there anymore. You have non-profits popping up to fund that kind of thing because the newspapers can’t. Imagine if the only source we had for news was Anthony Weiner saying he was hacked? You can’t just accept the story from the source. There’s a reason why you have to have real media. You can’t just take the Tweet of the player saying he’s injured, he’s not playing. Maybe it’s actually he’s a drug addict. This is a real dilemma, this isn’t something that will be solved easily. The American people have a kind of fairness monitor and they’re going to demand reliable news.

And now questions from the audience:

Audience member had long rambling intro but gist was what about bloggers getting more coverage of the teams>…

Dave: I tried to get credentials for the All Star Game through Fangraphs and was denied. So I called up my editor at the Wall Street Journal, and bam, of course I got in. Same person, but I wouldn’t have been let in just as a “blogger.” And because I’m not a generic beat writer I can ask different questions and interesting questions that are good. At the same time I can see how you can’t just open up the doors to just anyone. I wouldn’t let in every writer for Bleacher Report, for example.

Audience member complains that she couldn’t find anywhere online whether the game she was at was the longest nine-inning game of the Rockies and had to look in a print media guide, and also how she pays $100 a year for MLB.tv but it seems ridiculous that the games are blacked out in local markets like they are.

Sean: Well, you should have filed a bug report because I could totally add that to the Play Index. But seriously, data is only going to be more available and about routing around barriers. The more newspapers try to put stuff behind a paywall or something, the more they will either go around it or decide it’s not worth it. If I had a nickel for every 100 pages people accessed on Baseball-Reference I could retire. But people demand access. People fall out of the sky on me all the time with things like “I just digitized all the salaries for all the players in 1950″ and thank goodness they do, and I can just keep adding it in.

Bill: I think the day will come when the problem you’re experiencing (with TV being blacked out) will go away. Just like the music industry could no longer force people to buy $14.99 songs when people only wanted to buy one song. MLBAM deserves a lot of credit for doing more, and they are more likely to be part of the solution. They are working within the rights situation that already exists. But organizations like SABR can help demand that change.

Audience member: How do you see your revenues changing over the next ten years?

Russ: I hate this question. (laughter) We have a bigger audience that every before. We have tremendour readrship growth, but we haven’t figured out how to monetize it. The majority of the revenue still comes from the newspaper (in print) that has only 1/20th of our actual readership. We have a solution I can’t talk about yet that will hopefully reverse that trend.

Bill: All the titans of this industry are trying to answer this question. At Bloomberg we have a fantasy product we expected to grow from last year to this year and we were surprised to see the mobile sales going like this (gestures upward). People get used to things being free on the Internet and Google gets all the money for the ads because that’s the way it is.

Audience member: You can’t un-ring the bell. Everyone’s used to free content, but how do you monetize it?

Russ: We were the first newspaper to try to charge for online content. We put entertainment in 2003 (behind a paywall) and traffic dropped to zero. The New York Times tried it in 2005 when they put all their commentary, opinion, and columnists behind a wall and the same thing happened. There’s been a lot written about a lot of tablets like the iPad and others and there seems to be a lot more room for expansion in that space.

Dave: I think capitalism will fix some of these problems. When the Washington Nationals beat writer (Mark Zucker?) got laid off, the only one who would have been going was the one from MLB.com, but he put up a thing saying to the fans, hey, send me to spring training! And he got $20,000 in four days.

Sean: There’s also the problem about ads not working the way they really should be. Newspapers used to have a monopoly on local advertising, that they just don’t have anymore.

Dave: People are willing to provide the economics to keep it around. If they don’t want it to go away, they will say this thing has value to me and I will give you money to keep it from going away. There is a value add from a site like ours or Sean’s — we don’t charge anything but that doesn’t mean the value is zero.

Audience: When do you predict there will be no hardcopy newspapers and no paper books? Give me a number.

Bill: Bloomberg is so digital we forgot to put a print button the info we delivered to the teams at first. So they didn’t have ways to print it and hand it to the coaches. We put it in now, but I think the Kindle is going to look like the Model T in a couple of years.

Sean: I don’t know when it’s going to happen, but looking around this room I think we’ll mostly be dead by the time it happens. (laughter)

Russ: 2018 for the newspapers, more like 2025 for the books, if they go at all.

Dave: I think it’s funny that the one guy who has no vested interested in print I think there will always be the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, and books? I’ll be long dead before those go away… and hopefully I’m going to live a long time.

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