Baseball’s spring training starts this week, and the regular season starts in less than two months. In the meantime, Major League Baseball’s Web team is finishing a major upgrade of its popular MLB.TV Web video service — which it’ll use to broadcast some 2,500 games live this year.
The league hopes to finish the new player in time for testing during the World Baseball Classic international tournament, which starts in early March.
MLB Advanced Media, the league’s Internet arm, gave us a sneak preview of the new service last week. It’s the first year it’ll broadcast hi-def video. And MLB.com is cutting prices to sign up more subscribers this year. Their “premium” service will cost $110 for the season, down $10 from last year. It includes the following features:
- Hi-def video, up to 720p, if your computer and Internet connection can handle it.
- In-game “DVR” features, so you can rewind and pause live games.
- Picture-in-picture and up to four games at once in one screen.
- More audio feeds, including home and away radio feeds, synced up so they can replace the TV audio. (Not as obscure a request as you’d think.)
To get there, the league is overhauling its MLB.TV player — using Adobe’s (ADBE) Flash technology instead of Microsoft’s (MSFT) Silverlight — and much of its back-end infrastructure, including millions of dollars worth of new hardware. Why the investment? Besides being a flashy promotional tool, it’s also a money maker: MLB.TV had some 500,000 subscribers last year, likely generating tens of millions of dollars in revenue.
At MLB Advanced Media’s headquarters in Chelsea, the league’s tech execs told us that the Web video player itself — which they’ve been working on since last summer — is mostly done. But there’s still work to do in the league’s data centres — they’re still less than halfway done installing the new hardware. This includes swapping out Sun (JAVA) servers they use to encode game archives, adding five times the storage to handle larger HD video files, and installing Evertz gear to convert and process audio and video.
And the league is still figuring out if it’ll be able to finish a few MLB.TV features before baseball season starts.
At a project status meeting last week with MLB Advanced Media CEO Bob Bowman (pictured, left), staffers said that upgrading two features — monitoring fantasy baseball players in the MLB.TV player, and chatting live with other fans — might not be ready in time.
The league has already showed off a simple live chat feature in its promo video. But after seeing CNN’s Facebook chat integration during last month’s presidential inauguration coverage, MLB is wondering if it can do something similar. If so, that would take some time to develop, and might not be ready by spring.
Similarly, a basic fantasy player monitoring feature — which lets you keep up with your fantasy stars as they play their games live — is already built. But a sexier feature would be to integrate Yahoo’s (YHOO) popular Fantasy Baseball service, so you could automatically track the roughly two dozen players on your team (instead of selecting them manually). This would also please Yahoo, a MLB partner, which is in charge of selling video ads for MLB.TV this season. But there’s still development work left, so it, too, might not make it by Opening Day.
Admittedly, these are minor features — not requirements. But in this economy, anything the league can do to hook more season-long subscribers — at $110 a pop — could be worth it.
Meanwhile, we’ll be spending some more time with baseball’s tech team this week. Have questions about the new MLB.TV? Let us know in comments below, via email to [email protected], or via our anonymous tips box.