LAS VEGAS--Back in 2006, Major League Baseball (MLB) threatened Sling Media for enabling fans in, say Chicago, from watching a game in New York over the Internet. Ten years have made a heck of a difference.
At CES, Major League Baseball (MLB) Commissioner Rob Manfred and National Basketball Association (NBA) commissioner Adam Silver made it clear that they know the mobile and broadband technology genies can't be shoved back into their bottles. So, rather than fight the new technologies, they're embracing them -- including related businesses such as Internet video, social-networking, and fantasy sport betting sites such as FanDuel and DraftKings.
Mind you, the speed of change was a shock even to these two tech-savvy sports leaders. Silver said that the rate at which sports and technology have come together was "completely unexpected."
For example, Silver said, the "quality of video on handheld devices is fantastic, and it seems to have happened overnight. I remember people saying [only five years ago] fans will never watch sports on a handheld device."
Going beyond quality, Silver said, "Navigation is much easier [on mobile devices] than conventional cable or satellite TV. I would not have predicted this five years ago." Sure, the big screen experience is different, and ultimately people will gravitate to watching the game on a larger screen. "But now it's so easy to switch from screen to screen," he said, that it's common for people to watch a game on the mobile device and use the big-screen TV as a monitor. Cordcutters have been important in making this fundamental shift in how we watch sports, he added.
The sports industries have contributed to the progress that enhanced sports fans' experience. Manfred pointed out that while "Bud [Selig, former MLB Commissioner] didn't know what the Internet was, he figured out that combining Internet rights into one business was important," and thus enabled MLB to create MLB Media, and became a streaming leader with MLB.TV.
Baseball has also focused attention on reaching out to young people. According to Manfred, MLB's early move into the Internet put it in a position that allowed them to develop apps like At Bat. "This app averaged 30.8 million users a day during the baseball season and its average user is under 30."
Turner Broadcast host and play-by-play man Ernie Johnson also asked the commissioners how they felt about social networking. "Managers out there would probably prefer not to see [Houston Astros shortstop] Carlos Correa at the end of the dugout putting out a tweet in the 8th inning. But if a guy pitched the night before....or he's on the [Disabled List], could you see that kind of thing?"
Manfred replied, "Here's the larger issue that you raise, and it's an issue for all sports. What fans want is not just to watch the game now. While they're watching, they probably have some other device going. That other device is suited to provide access beyond the game that they're seeing on the screen. Social media is an opportunity to provide our fans with that kind of access. Where you draw the line between a guy who's out of the game now who offers his thoughts on what's happened, that's one side of the line. The other side of the line is Correa tweeting from the bench. I couldn't see that in the immediate future."
"We very much encourage our players to engage in social media... But we have to separate what happens within the four corners of the court from their other free time. It is a very hard line to draw," added Silver.
It's not just what the players say off the field. Tech advances are making it possible to track exactly what a player is doing on the field with sensors and potentially with player cameras. Applications such as Statcast already give fans real-time information on what players are doing moment to moment.
Manfred said, "A lot of the information that we have can be very useful to fans to demystify the game and track the movements of players." With that information -- such as the live tools displayed on TV -- the "average fan understands that when a center fielder makes a great catch, it's a product of the kind of athleticism that most of us don't possess. That sort of information, we figure, will draw people deeper into the game."
Yet that adds privacy issues, and not just for the players. With every fan having a video camera in his phone, Silver said, "Virtually anywhere you go... you have to be aware that anything you say or do could get picked up." He added, "There can't really be an expectation of privacy any more when you go into these arenas. You're in a broadcast studio."
As Manfred said, "The more dangerous form of access is the access we don't control, and that's the fans." So, if a ticket-holder cusses out a player, he shouldn't be surprised if he's on YouTube within the hour.
Another major change to sports is the rise of sports gambling sites. Both commissioners would like to see FanDuel, which has a relationship with the NBA, and DraftKings, which is allied with the MLB, be regulated.
Today, these billion dollar plus sports betting companies are in legal hot-water. In October, a DraftKings employee illegally used information to win $350,000 on FanDuel. The DoJ and the FBI are also investigating whether these businesses constitute gambling operations, and are thereby breaking rules set out by the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act of 2006. The state attorneys general of New York and Illinois have already filed lawsuits trying to shut down these businesses, saying they are illegal sports-betting operations.
DraftKings and FanDuel argue that they offer games of skill, not chance, and are therefore perfectly legal. The Commissioners are on their side.
"I agree with [Silver] that it's important that this industry has transparency and appropriate regulation," said Manfred.
Silver said he believed fantasy sports should be regulated at the federal level. Besides, he concluded, "It's frankly a lot healthier than the alternative, which is illegal sports betting."
Part of the problem behind sports gambling is that the technologies and business models have changed so fast, and it is hard for the law to keep up. As Turner president David Levy said in his introduction to the commissioner's panel discussion, "Every deal is highly complex, involving all screens and maybe even some platforms we don't know about in 2016."
Even with all this technology, the commissioners don't see live sports dying. Indeed, the NBA has seen record season-ticket and attendance growth for the last few years. Silver commented, "People may live in virtual relationships, but they still want to be around other people."
Manfred observed, "Seventy-five million people went to MLB games last season, and 40-43 million to minor league games. Baseball has a social aspect."
Silver added, "As Mark Cuban said, 'People remember going with their dad or mom to a game, but not the game score or the first time they saw a game in the home theater.'"
Certainly, you'll see me at my next Asheville Tourists baseball game, with my digital paraphernalia in tow.