Three guesses which organization is responsible for streaming this month’s college basketball drama on NCAA’s site. You might think CBS, which has broadcast the games on TV for years. Or Turner Sports, its partner in last year’s blockbuster $11-billion, 14-year joint deal for the tournament. Or even web giant Akamai. Well, that’s three strikes and you’re out. It’s Major League Baseball.
On the surface, baseball’s contribution sounds as likely as Harvard making the big dance (yesterday’s opening round loss to Vanderbilt was the school’s first appearance in 66 years). “You get the raised eyebrow,” says MLB’s Joe Inzerillo of its diverse streaming business. “Baseball? Really?” But as our feature in the upcoming April issue illustrates, MLB Advanced Media, BAM for short, is more like heavily favored Kentucky when it comes to web streaming.
This is its seventh year broadcasting the tournament online. Between the basketball and spring training games, BAM averages 80 live events a day yesterday through Sunday. (Last Saturday was a record, 115 events.)
Baseball’s tech unit streams more than March Madness (it also developed the mobile app). College football’s BCS National Championship, soccer’s World Cup, Coke’s simulcast ad during the Super Bowl featuring its polar bears reacting to the action–BAM did those, too. It broadcasts Glenn Beck’s daily web show as well as all of the live web video for ESPN, a chief competitor. For the demanding requirements of live video, “[BAM] was way ahead,” says John Kosner, ESPN’s executive vice president and general manager of ESPN digital and print media.
Last year, BAM streamed 18,000 live events–more than any other company, period. (That’s just one of the reasons it ranks No. 2 on our Most Innovative Companies in Sports list this year.) Over the last two years, it distributed more than a half a billion feeds. It even acts as a broadcaster at times, producing video and then distributing, for some baseball games and the Webby Awards.
BAM became a sophisticated tech company out of necessity. To broadcast every baseball game online, Inzerillo, its senior vice president of multimedia and distribution, led the team that built the first system in sports to instantly transmit TV signals from ballparks around the country to smartphones, tablets, and PCs. The equipment has to be able to handle massive amounts of data. Because BAM provides fans with home and away audio for each game, 15 concurrent games on a given night is actually like 30 concurrent games. And the 2,500 or so total Major League games in a season amounts to 5,000 live feeds.
That technology and expertise needed to be put to use in the off-season, so the third-party streaming business was born, an unexpected source of revenue to the lucrative paid content model. It’s impressive metamorphosis, especially for a sports league. “There are at least two kinds of hitters,” says Bob Bowman, BAM’s president and CEO from the start, back in 2000. “One is the Albert Pujols of the world. ‘Throw me anything you want. I know what I’m going do [try to homer].’ And there are other hitters, pesky hitters, who adjust their swing based upon the pitch, the Derek Jeters. We’re much more in that group. I can’t tell you we had a vision all along that we’d wind up where we are today.”
Actually, BAM is a bit of both. It made the right adjustments like Jeter, but the results–more than $600 million in annual revenue–are pure Pujols.