NBA Commissioner Adam Silver is one of the more forward-thinking leaders of the four major sports, and he recently discussed something that I hope MLB’s own commissioner, Rob Manfred, paid close attention to.
Speaking at the Code Commerce conference in New York, Silver said something I think a lot of people believe, but not many like to admit: The current format of broadcasting is boring and outdated. He didn’t say that explicitly, but he implied it by saying the way we currently watch sports is akin to a “silent movie.” It used to be fine and acceptable, but eventually a new way of watching entertainment came along and suddenly the old way seems archaic.
The way sports broadcasting is now is the way it has been for decades. Game action in the background, maybe a score overlay with the occasional stats popping up, and the audio of a couple of broadcasters, usually pushing retirement age, talking about the action on screen. It’s worked for a long time, and it was revolutionary when just the idea of sports on your television was a big deal, but the internet has permanently altered the way we consume content.
Specifically, there are platforms like Twitch and YouTube which have people from all walks of life, all age groups, and all talent levels playing games and talking over them. Often with an overly of some kind or a live video of themselves as they play, with other information displayed along the side — such as time splits in a speed run, or donation amounts. It leads to very tight-knit communities from across the internet built around fans with similar interests.
If you’ve never watched a streamer on Twitch, this probably sounds stupid to you. Why clutter the screen with more junk? To you, the idea of having some kid screaming on top of a baseball game is pointless and adds nothing to the experience. But ask most kids or young adults (or even me, a 27-year-old) about watching Twitch streams, and they probably don’t even notice the overlay while watching.
Good Twitch streamers still mostly stay quiet during cutscenes, and people watching in chat rarely are unable to follow the action on screen. They have become experts in letting a story unfold behind them while injecting their own personalities into a broadcast. Baseball needs that. Not just for attracting younger viewers, which it absolutely would do, but to keep the game interesting on screen when these younger viewers turn into older viewers. Simply broadcasting outdated formats on Twitter and Facebook is not enough, and it never will be. Sports are eventually going to move onto more streaming platforms, even if they have to be dragged kicking and screaming. Some kind of evolution will need to come along with it.
By the sounds of it, Adam Silver wants the broadcasters to take over and change the way they present the game of baskeball, but I don’t think that’s enough. It’s a legalistically nightmare, for sure, but my dream scenario for baseball would be some kind of licensed streaming service where anyone can be a broadcaster. Just like firing up OBS and streaming a game of MLB The Show 17, anyone on this service could pick a game to broadcast over, setup their own overlay with whatever stats or visuals their community feels are important, and take in donations from the community they build around their own broadcast.
In the age of the internet, it’s personalities that drive content, and it goes beyond just having players with big personalities. Younger viewers, who will eventually turn into the only viewers, are turning more and more to a kind of secondary entertainment in their entertainment. It’s not just enough to have an entertaining video or entertaining game or entertaining sport, you also need someone that people can connect with as the driving force behind the content. The rise of YouTube, and later Twitch, came because people felt personally connected to the people on the screens; it’s much harder to feel so connected to a multi-millionaire in a suit and tie broadcasting in a multi-billion dollar stadium. Sometimes, all it takes is an interesting person in front of their webcam.
That stripping down from a few central sources has already happened on the internet and with sports. Fewer fans are watching ESPN in favor of video podcasts and informative YouTube channels. Fewer fans are listening to local sports radio in favor of podcasts. Fewer fans are going to ESPN.com in favor of blogs that can be as niche or as broad as you can imagine. The future of watching of sports can’t be found in how it’s been done for the last 30+ years, it can only be found in trying new things.
The sooner Major League Baseball sees that, the better.