MLB Loosens Grip on Highlights in Bid for Younger Fans

    • MLB Film Room, the league’s newest video tool, is the latest way that MLB is trying to reach younger fans.
    • MLB Film Room’s launch has led to a 240% rise in users searching on MLB.com’s video portal year-over-year.

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During the 2014 season, MLB began installing tracking technology that collected and analyzed unprecedented amounts of baseball data.

The league considered Statcast the next natural step in the evolution of consuming and understanding baseball, and it was eventually installed in all 30 ballparks in 2015. While groundbreaking in its own right, Vasanth Williams, chief product officer at MLB, said that Statcast was only the foundation for the league’s next innovation: MLB Film Room. 

Statcast was lauded upon its release for the breadth of statistics that it covered. Many different communities — from analytics gurus to broadcasters — started making sophisticated terms like “spin rate,” “exit velocity” and “launch angle” commonplace in baseball vernacular. Like Statcast, MLB Film Room is expansive in its own right. Its search function puts a library of more than 3.5 million videos right at one’s fingertips and more than 30 filters — ranging from home runs to double plays — for users to find exactly what they want.

“This has been in the works for multiple years,” Williams said. “It’s not something that we’re just putting out there these past couple of weeks. It’s an evolution of the investments that the league has made in the last few years that led to this eventual experience that we could build out for fans.”

MLB Film Room was formally announced on Sept. 8. Powered by Google Cloud, the video tool gives fans the ability to create custom highlight reels to share on social media or on their own websites. 

MLB Film Room also makes it easier for content creators to work on multiple projects simultaneously. For example, users can create custom Reels combining various clips from the library. Upon completion, they can embed the final clip on Twitter natively or on their own website. 

As a part of MLB.com’s video library, MLB Film Room’s archival footage includes every pitch thrown in MLB dating back to 2017, as well as historical clips from as far back as 1929. With nearly a century of video content at users’ disposal, Williams said that the league had to be able to identify specific “tags” in the videos that made it easier for fans to access them.

The release of MLB Film Room is particularly notable given the league’s previously stringent stances on highlight sharing. When the league debuted MLB Advanced Media — known as MLBAM — in June 2000, it served as the interactive arm of the league, operating its official website and its 30 MLB clubs via MLB.com. In summer 2016, Disney bought a 33% stake for $1 billion — only to pay an additional $1.6 billion for a majority stake the following year, according to Deadspin. ESPN’s Jeff Passan told WBUR in June 2018 that BAM is currently valued at anywhere ranging from $3 billion to $5 billion.

Over time, Rob Friedman, a lawyer turned baseball content creator, gained more than 45,000 followers on his @PitchingNinja Twitter account, which offers pitching advice that’s followed by everyone from amateur players to Houston Astros pitcher Lance McCullers Jr. MLB had taken no action against Friedman’s resharing of baseball clips, despite it potentially undermining and undervaluing BAM’s video offerings. 

However, after “Pitching Ninja” and Barstool Sports personality Kevin “KFC Barstool” Clancy engaged in a public Twitter beef, the former’s account was suspended for using MLB’s footage without its permission. The matter quickly resolved, as Friedman and MLB worked out a deal for him to be an independent contractor for the league.

As of Sept. 16, @PitchingNinja has accumulated more than 241,700 Twitter followers with “@MLB and @ESPN Pitching Contributing Analyst” included in his bio.

With Bleacher Report and House of Highlights racking up tens of millions of views from sharing videos across the professional sports landscape, Williams saw them as inspiration for MLB to make its own digital content more accessible. 

“As we looked at how the younger generation is interacting with and consuming media, we wanted for awhile an experience that’s in line with that to our fans,” Williams said. “The way they consume media was a deviation from what the regular behavior was. As long as [the sharing of MLB content] is safe from a rights point of view … we’re okay with that.”

While NBC Sports’ Jessica Kleinschmidt has never been subjected to the legal scrutiny that @PitchingNinja dealt with, she does recognize that incident hurt MLB’s reputation with content creators. One unauthorized video share and an account could get suspended due to copyright. 

Upon hearing about MLB Film Room, Kleinschmidt embraced it because of its resemblance to @Cut4 on Twitter, a league sub-brand that has become known for its GIFs and in-game videos. 

Kleinschmidt got her start in sports by working at MLB before being hired by NBC Sports in the Bay Area to cover the Oakland Athletics and San Francisco Giants. With more than 48,400 Twitter followers, CBS Sports’ Danny Vietti wrote in a July article that Kleinschmidt is one of 12 baseball content creators that social media users should follow ahead of the 2020 season.

For Kleinschmidt, she prefers to post baseball content that captures the atypical scenes from a game.

“Me personally, I like to relive the quirky, different moments that people may not see, whether it’s a bat flip or a weird fan acting out or just somebody acting a certain way in the dugout,” Kleinschmidt said. “It was a cool moment for [MLB Film Room] to kind of remind people why baseball can be fun and to have all of those different clips at your fingertips is a really good tool.”

With MLB Film Room, Kleinschmidt believes that MLB is looking to bring numerous industry workers together by making its content more open.

“[MLB is] embracing the bloggers of the world,” Kleinschmidt said. “It’s embracing the people that may not be analytically driven, but they know good content. We all need room at that table for the analytics people, for the quirkiness, for the reporters, for everything.”

Although MLB officially announced MLB Film Room in early September, one baseball content creator has known about it for as long as six months. Bailey, the man behind the “Foolish Baseball” Twitter account, was introduced to the technology earlier this year, with many of the same features included in the final release.

Bailey looks at MLB Film Room as another attempt for the league to bring out more of its copyrighted material. He points out that, since 2009, every pitch from an MLB game can be watched on either YouTube, MLB.tv or Baseball Savant

Now with MLB Film Room, Bailey — who prefers not to publicly reveal his full name — hopes that it will build upon its current archival footage and broaden its capabilities in future updates.

“The way they could really improve it is going back and continuing to add clips that weren’t even previously there,” Bailey said. “That would give you a lot more to search through and look at.”

Thus far, Williams has been happy with the initial release of MLB Film Room. According to the league, the feature’s launch led to a 240% increase in users searching on MLB.com’s video portal year-over-year. MLB Film Room has also been attributed to video starts on MLB.com’s video portal increasing by double-digit percentage points. Overall, MLB’s video views are up 30% compared to last season.

As the league gears up for postseason play, Williams wants to see continued growth of other MLB products meant to attract younger fans. MLB recently released Rally, a free-to-play app that enables users to make live-game predictions, earn points and compete for daily cash prizes. Williams says that people have spent upwards of 20 minutes on Rally, with more than half of them under the age of 35.

Despite rolling out new technologies like MLB Film Room and Rally in the middle of a global pandemic, Williams views it as being the best time to connect the league with fans who are forced to follow baseball from home. 

“It’s more than ever that digital is important in the world of sports,” Williams said. “I think we’re actually very fortunate to be able to be ready to launch more video browser-centric products this year, because I think people need this more than any other year before. They have more time on their hands because there’s not much to do, and they spend a lot of time watching live sports and engaging with other interests from home.”