Baseball Men - The Futurist

Our "Baseball Men" series continues with Bob Bowman, Chief Executive Officer of MLB Advanced Media.

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 Die-Hard Fans'.

 

 

Old Madison Square, between Manhattan's 4th Avenue and 27th 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 media.

 

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.

 

Chief Executive 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 future:

 

 

What did baseball mean to you when you were growing up?

 

Well, 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 careful here'.

 

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 game.

 

In starting out, what did you see as the business challenges and the opportunities?

 

Largely, they were one and the same. Success is achieved by overcoming challenges.

 

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, stats, reading.

 

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, news.

 

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?

 

It starts, 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 revenues?

 

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 great.

 

I'm proud, 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 interactive experience'. 

 

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 view?

 

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 seriously.

 

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 foreseeable future?

 

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 company first.

 

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 productivity.

 

Oh.

 

How can you justify yourself?

 

If you think about it, we help productivity overall.

 

Help productivity'?

 

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]. (chuckles)

 

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.

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