Peter Handrinos is a frequent
contributor to Scout.com and author of the upcoming ‘The Best New York
Sports Arguments: The 100 Most Controversial, Debatable Questions for
Street, is the place
baseball’s future was born - it’s where The Knickerbocker Base Ball Club first
practiced, thereby setting the rules that helped define the game fans see today.
Just a few blocks away, at
9th Avenue and 16th Street, is the place where baseball’s
future is now being shaped - it’s the home of Major League Baseball Advanced
Media and MLB.com, the site that will define the game fans will be seeing for
years to come.
It’s happening because MLB.com is using technology to take baseball
outreach to previously unimaginable areas. Vast statistic resources and
up-to-the-minute reporting currently draw an estimated 1.3 billion unique visits
per year, with that content serving as a lead-in to options including broadband
video and audio, online ticket purchasing, memorabilia authentication services,
and poll balloting. The company’s processing power is the been the envy of major
team sports, to the point where football and basketball clubs frequently lease
out MLBAM’s studios and pipes for their own internet-based
Cutting-edge features have
translated to new accessibility and popularity in the new millennium. Last year,
for instance, more than 1.3 million internet-users paid as much as $80 apiece to
watch ball games through MLB.TV, many of them out-of-town fans who couldn’t
otherwise access their favorite ball club broadcasts. The day has arrived when a
tech-savvy fan can find baseball stats and broadcasts literally any time and
anywhere, one major reason why MLBAM’s customers (and profits), have multiplied
more than seven times over in the last five years.
Officer Bob Bowman’s been in the center of it all from the beginning.
A graduate of Harvard and The
Wharton School of Business, Bowman’s stints at Goldman Sachs and the US
Department of the Treasury led to a post as Treasurer for the State of
Michigan from 1983 to 1991. After growing
the state’s pension system three times over, he followed up with more lucrative
successes as the head of the ITT conglomerate and several internet-based
startups. Since taking his current post in November 2000, Bowman’s guided a
staff that now includes over 200 editors, commentators, technicians,
programmers, and support staff.
Bob Bowman’s now heading the
fastest-growing baseball venture since the days of the old Knickerbockers.
Recently, he discussed baseball’s traditions and his company’s bright
What did baseball mean to you when
you were growing up?
21st century, 20th century, 19th century - I
guess we all get into baseball in the same way. Our dad or mom take us to the
ball park and we say, ‘This is the greatest game in the world. Two hot dogs and
two sodas for dinner? This is the best!’.
So, really, it
started when my father took me to my first ball game back when I was a kid, back
in Chicago. It’s been a 45-year love affair since then.
Going into your job
as CEO of MLB Advanced Media, you were entering into the newest venture in the
oldest American team sport. What was your initial approach to the job?
Well, as a lifelong
fan of the game, I felt it was a dream job. At the same time, I felt it was a
big responsibility to protect and promote one of the most important brand names
in the country. So there was a mixture of ‘What the heck, let’s try it, let’s
throw it on the wall’ mixed in with, ‘This is Major League Baseball. Let’s be
I can see how you
might have felt that way, because the game’s cultural impact seems to go so far
beyond the dollars and cents. I mean, the business of baseball isn’t close to
the Fortune 500, but it impacts on so many fans’ daily lives in ways that
multi-billion companies can’t hope to emulate.
I don’t want to get
into the James Earl Jones speech [from ‘Field of Dreams’], but it really has
marked time. The first National Anthem was played at a baseball game. You can go
down the line in the way that it’s helped define what the United States is all
about. So, definitely, I was hoping to strike a balance, where we’d create an
innovative and bold workplace, but one that respected the
In starting out,
what did you see as the business challenges and the
Largely, they were
one and the same. Success is achieved by overcoming
One of the first
things that struck me was the quantity of material we had to work with. It’s a
daily game, obviously, with nearly 45 hours of unscripted programming from 15
contests per day. It’s a constant companion. Even when there’s a rare off day,
there’s something going on. Fans want to tap into that, sometimes for 10
minutes, sometimes for two hours, so that was both the challenge and the
opportunity, right there.
What was your
thinking in connecting to the fans through technology?
Well, I don’t think
the relationship starts with technology, not at all.
When you’re talking
about the National Pastime, you’re talking about more than 75 million fans
walking through the turnstiles every year - in the Major Leagues alone. Another
40 million or so attend games in the Minors, and I-don’t-know-how-many others
attend games for college, high school, Little League. Baseball’s completely
unique in that level of fan involvement, and the way that attendance can
influence the fans’ feelings about the game.
All that’s offline,
and I don’t think that TV or the internet can beat that. Our job, as I see it,
is to use new tools to supplement the fans’ pre-existing, personal relationship.
Think about it this
way - we know that TV broadcasts haven’t hurt the game’s booming attendance over
the last few decades. Before that, we know that radio, and newspapers, for that
matter, didn’t curb the fans’ interest in the game. I’d say it was more of a
synergy, where the live game helped the technology and information, and it’s
much the same today. The same fans that go to Yankee Stadium or Shea, here in
New York, are the ones who visit Yankees.com and Mets.com.
That view is kind of
contrary to some conventional wisdom, as you know. Some have claimed technology
has created more and more passive computer guys and couch potatoes.
That doesn’t make
much sense, in my view. Whether they’re using a PC or a cell phone, I hope
MLB.com makes baseball more accessible and fun for fans, but I’d never claim
we’re completely reinventing their basic relationship, for good or bad. We’re
just giving them new tools to do what they want to do, in viewing, listening,
When you launched,
were you optimistic about a subscriber model in delivering content? As you know,
most internet startups of the late ‘90’s failed because they couldn’t get
visitors to pay for original content.
I was optimistic
because I saw what had happened in cable television.
Years ago, in the
1960’s, you had the three big networks dominating broadcasting TV, but cable
television eventually came in to offer pay programming for more niche audiences.
You, basically, went from broad-casting to narrow-casting. There was the natural
progression where a big three channels became hundreds of smaller channels.
I see baseball’s
content, basically, in the same terms. The networks and ESPN will always have
the biggest rating numbers, but streaming video can offer a great value for
smaller audiences, and increasing numbers of baseball fans have been willing to
pay for it. In 2006, we expect to have two, three million subscribers.
Are you happy with
the reliability and accessibility of streaming video or interactive cell-phone?
It’s still very
early yet. For instance, only about 2% of cell phones are truly video-enabled as
of now. We’re barely scratching the surface in an interface that’s really going
to seem almost ho-hum in the future. We are at the beginning of the beginning,
as far as that goes. And that’s OK.
What’s going to
happen is this - my 11-year old daughter, by the time she turns 18, will see 3-D
images that are going to predominate among cell phones and laptops. She won’t
think of it as ‘new media’. It might seem like ‘new media’ to us, but not to the
new generation. It’ll just be this incredibly fast, incredibly sophisticated
platform for receiving educational content, entertainment,
Maybe, within a few
years, we’ll be talking about today’s broadband the way that old-time baseball
fans talk about scratchy old transistor radios.
Oh, what we call
‘broadband’ in the United States, the Japanese and Koreans would laugh at.
They’d laugh. They’re five times faster. The day’s coming that the images will
rival those of TV sets. So, yeah, you’re right, one day, fairly soon, today’s
speed and quality will be blown away.
Are you worried
about that creating a division among fans? I mean, the ones who are going to
take advantage of MLB Advanced Media’s innovations, for the most part, are going
to be very young, and they won’t necessarily have the same relationship to the
game as older fans.
That’s the nature of
technology, in general, though. If you want to teach something new, look for
someone who’s seven or eight [years old], not 57 or 58. I wouldn’t call that a
division. Everyone can enjoy baseball in their own way. My view is, give fans
powerful and convenient options, and the right ones will access them.
As you know, there’s
been a lot of controversy over the game’s content, especially when it comes to
fantasy baseball. When it comes to statistics, what does Major League Baseball
own, and what’s in the public domain?
definitely, with the public domain. Box scores are practically as old as
baseball itself, and that’s been a staple of the old media and new media, but
there is a line when a business has a right to protect its intellectual
property. I’d draw a bright line when people try to use Major League Baseball’s
names, marks, and images to go along with the box scores. I mean, I don’t know
of any business that would allow that kind of thing.
The question is
still in the courts, and people get into a protagonist vs. antagonist frame of
thinking, but it’s not what it’s about. It’s about the right to protect your own
name. We’ll see how that works out.
How do you view
MLBAM’s role in leveling the playing field in team
I think you mean, in
the fact that we’re owned by all thirty teams?
Sure, thank you. In
the fact every team gets an equal share of your growing profits.
I feel pretty good
about it. We’ve seen some good news in terms of baseball’s economics, and a lot
of it is related to revenue sharing and the [luxury] taxes but, to the extent
that we’re contributing to parity or competitive balance, that’s
especially, of the way Advanced Media’s put smaller market teams on par with
larger market teams. For the first time ever, in our venture, fans of all teams
are treated alike. The Royals may not have as many fans as the Red Sox, but
their fans get the same quality content and accessibility. That’s the message -
‘No matter who you’re rooting for, baseball fan, you deserve the same
Over the last few
years, MLB.com has hired its own staff of reporters and commentators for the
site, and they’re among the most popular baseball writers around. Are you
outside journalists, or do you represent an ‘official’ point of
We decided to play
it down the middle from the get-go, and we were a bit worried if we’d hear it
from the owners, but the answer’s been a resounding ‘no’. The owners were
delighted, if anything, because they were used to being beaten up in coverage
that was inaccurate and unfair. At least, in their minds, we’ve been accurate.
Are we going to get
into side issues about where a player was at two o’clock in the morning? No. But
I think fans have come to trust us because we will go all-out for the stuff they
care about most, which is the action on the field and the moves in the front
offices. Baseball fans like the game. They don’t necessarily like the side
stuff. They want the game between the lines, and we give them the game between
the lines. I think we’ve been fairly successful because we take that
There’s a lot of
speculation about a time when Major League Baseball Advanced Media will make an
Initial Public Offering. With your growing success, do you see an IPO in the
Well, our board
looked at it a couple years ago and we came to the conclusion that we weren’t
prepared for an IPO. We just didn’t have the bandwidth. We had to put the
The board will, no
doubt, look at it again. Whether that’s in two years or four years, I don’t
know. So far, we’ve got enough capital for our operations and growth, we don’t
feel the need to take money off the table [in profits], and there’s no ego
involved. Frankly, at the moment, we’re just focused on running the best
possible business, so people will want to be a part of it.
As you know, every
day, millions of American are visiting MLB.com instead of working hard at their
jobs. Mr. Bowman, you have a lot to answer for in terms of America’s lost
How can you justify
If you think about
it, we help productivity overall.
What are the top two
reasons workers leave their office? Starbucks and cigarettes. Caffeine and
nicotine. Two things that are bad for you. We kill that, and substitute
baseball. How many times have people said, ‘I better not smoke that cigarette -
I’ve got to watch the Yankees on MLB.TV?’
(shrugs) I know that
some companies look at it differently, but for all they know, we
might be adding, oh, a point in GNP [Gross National Product].
What’s the best part
of your job?
I’ll tell you - the
best part of my job is when I’m at a party or an airport lounge or somewhere and
somebody, not knowing where I work, starts talking about Brewers.com or
Giants.com. They might go on and on about how this is so neat, how they can
finally access their favorite team’s best information and video.
That is very cool.
It’s a reminder of the human side. Baseball makes people’s lives better, and
it’s good to be a part of that.
In these years as
CEO for Major League Advanced Media, are you more of a fan, less of a fan, or
pretty much the same?
Let me answer you
this way: I can walk out of the
room on this beautiful, sunny day in Manhattan, head out to the
ball park, grab a good seat, watch the ball game, and claim, ‘Hey, I’m at work’.
It’s a pretty nice gig.
The complete Table of Contents for
the ‘Baseball Men’ interview series can be found here.