Inside sports business
Six years ago during spring training, I flipped a switch and began live-streaming a Mariners-themed video chat show via a small camera and laptop from a table outside the team’s clubhouse.
Live video streaming was brand new and the Mariners were intrigued and supportive in supplying locations for the shows. But they soon clamped down on live-streamed footage of spring training games and team workouts, under the guise of preserving the value of deals with their television rights-holders.
This mystified me, because the quality of my footage never rivaled the high-grade ROOT Sports telecasts. Anyhow, we stopped the shows by 2012; the novelty of live-streamed content having worn off for the thousands we’d once had tuning in.
Today, the technology is so commonplace that two recently launched applications — Periscope and Meerkat — now enable fans at the ballpark to live-stream game action via their smartphones. This, of course, has prompted the exact same discussion about whether TV networks paying billions to broadcast games will see value eroded by the technology.
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To which, the answer remains: of course not.
No fan spends big bucks on tickets just to sit with a camera phone trained on home plate for nine innings. And it’s ridiculous to think TV viewers will forego a professionally produced ROOT Sports broadcast on their HD sets to watch Johnny Fanboy’s fragmented phone footage.
Major League Baseball itself seems to agree, given its response last week to the Meerkat and Periscope question. An initial Wall Street Journal story had MLB ready to monitor all fans and crack down on live streamed game action.
But Bob Bowman, CEO and chairman of MLB Advanced Media, quickly denied any crackdown and the newspaper subsequently corrected the story.
“No fan goes to our game with the thought of streaming live a half an inning of a game,’’ Bowman told CNBC. “They’ve been capturing images of our players for a long time, and you have to allow that kind of activity.”
Bowman is right. In fact, MLB has little choice but to allow it.
Copyright law doesn’t favor sports leagues on this. And the only way they can police fans risks devolving into a public-relations nightmare.
One of the more pinnacle copyright decisions involving a sports league came in a 1997 lawsuit by the NBA against Motorola Inc. The telecommunications company manufactured a paging device and used employees stationed inside arenas to text out instant game updates to fans anywhere.
The NBA argued this infringed on its exclusive property rights to live game action. But the courts disagreed, saying the league’s game broadcasts enjoyed copyright protection — but not the live action itself.
This was an important distinction impacting today’s live streaming.
Per the courts: copy game footage off the TV and you’re in trouble. Create your own footage by going to the game and taking it? That’s allowed.
Rhett Barney, a Seattle-based intellectual property lawyer with an interest in sports marketing cases, says Motorola’s victory determined leagues enjoy no copyright protection from anyone reproducing, or live-streaming games. Barney says copyright law inherently protects artistic creation, not live sports action that isn’t choreographed or designed in advance.
He says leagues can only do what they’ve done already: print restrictions on tickets telling fans live streaming is forbidden. If fans break that “contract” teams can eject them from the ballpark.
But having the right to eject fans and actually doing it are different things.
Teams restrict media streaming via similar “contracts” on credentials. But it’s easy to monitor a few media members in press boxes and on websites.
Teams don’t have time to monitor thousands of fans on social media and triangulate exactly which ballpark seat any offending footage is coming from. Even if they could, the benefits of tossing a money-paying fan for streaming his game experience would likely be far outweighed by negative fallout.
“The legal response is very rarely the best response,’’ Barney agrees.
Instead, he adds, we’ll see leagues trying to make the technology work for them.
The Seattle Reign women’s soccer team recently live-streamed an exhibition game on Periscope — owned by Twitter — and plans more efforts, including locker room interviews and sideline shots.
Most leagues have adopted a wait-and-see approach on fan streaming. MLB is the first big test case and seems focused on the positives of streaming fans creating added exposure for the sport.
So, until we hear of a fan being dragged from his seat for going all Dave Sims on us, we’ll assume initial paranoia is giving way to common sense.
It’s enough to make me grab my phone and head to Safeco Field to shoot a pregame show from the stands. Better yet, I’ll just kick back in my TV lounger and let some paying fan do all the work.