Following Baseball's Pay-by-Pay

By Frank Ahrens
Sunday, April 23, 2006

Back in the early days of Internet streaming, around 1997 or so, I used to listen to Cincinnati Reds games by going to the Web site of WLW, the team's hometown flagship radio station, and clicking on the site's streaming audio. A year later, Major League Baseball stepped in and consolidated the Web broadcasts, inking a deal with Yahoo to stream them through the portal at no charge.

Then, MLB must have realized it was letting free money slip through its fingers (even though fans listen for free on the radio). In 2001, MLB cut a deal with Real Networks to allow subscribers to listen to -- and later view -- play-by-play of the games for an added premium. Fans could also go to MLB's Web site to stream the games on other players, including Microsoft's Windows Media Player.

When the Real-MLB contract expired last month, the two sides went their separate ways. MLB held on to the Microsoft format, noting that the majority of fans were using Microsoft's player anyway.

But the absence of Real essentially alienated Mac users (among them, the sprawling Web Watch staff) who preferred watching the streaming games on that player. MLB said that the stream would work fine on the Mac version of the Microsoft player.

But The Register, a British online publication covering the IT industry, said it tried out the new streaming setup on its Macs (What? They couldn't get cricket?) and found it "almost unusable," owing to starts and stops in the stream and sudden drop-outs. The video "played like a champ" on Real last year, the site reported.

As if MLB didn't have enough image problems already with the Barry Bonds steroids investigation, the continuing revenue and competitive imbalance between the large- and small-market teams and the league's inability to pick an owner for the Nationals (okay, that's probably only a problem for us).

In less than a decade, baseball fans have gone from being able to listen to their favorite teams anywhere in the country for free on the Internet to having to pay. On the upside, you get to see the games as well as hear them, and has added a new feature this year, called "Mosaic," that lets subscribers watch six games simultaneously. To watch games, it costs $14.95 per month or $79.95 for the entire season.

By comparison, CBS streamed games of the NCAA men's basketball tournament this year on its Web site, free of charge. The streams were a hit, with nearly 270,000 simultaneous viewers and more than 14 million streams during the first three weeks of the tournament, according to CBS, which also reported that television ratings for its hoops broadcasts rose over last year's.

The Enblogs and More

I'm currently in Houston covering the remaining days of the Enron Corp. trial, in which former chief executive Jeffrey K. Skilling and founder Kenneth L. Lay are facing numerous counts of fraud, conspiracy and insider trading for what the government alleges is their role in the 2001 collapse of the energy giant.

While I of course want you to read our coverage of the trial -- I'm blogging and my Business section colleague Carrie Johnson is covering for the paper -- I thought Enron fans might like to see some of the other online coverage. (Just don't click on any of their ads, okay?)

· You might like to begin your tour here: .

· The Houston Chronicle has exhaustively been covering the collapse since before it was a collapse: http:/// . Business columnist Loren Steffey's blog is particularly fun and the site includes a lawyers' blog providing ongoing analysis of the trial.

· Wall Street Journal law blogger Peter Lattman has been down here quite a lot and has written good stuff from the trial: .

· Houston lawyer Tom Kirkendall has been following the trial closely. Here's his blog: http:/// .

© 2006 The Washington Post Company