On Aug. 26, 2002, Major League Baseball became the first professional sports league to live-stream a regular-season game as that day’s contest between the Rangers and Yankees went out to 30,000 viewers.
Noah Garden remembers those nascent times of MLB.TV. He remembers how the stream would buffer and crash, and how everyone at MLB Advanced Media’s office in Manhattan’s Chelsea District was sweating each setback — literally. It didn’t help that the office had lost air conditioning.
But in a time before YouTube or Netflix streaming, Garden and his team knew they were embarking upon something revolutionary.
“It’s mind-boggling to think how early we were back then, but it was great,” said Garden, MLB’s chief revenue officer. “… You go back to those early 2000s, this technology, none of this existed. We knew we were on to something early, because it was sticky and people kept coming back, and it kept growing.”
From those humble beginnings, MLB.TV has become a behemoth in the streaming space. It has been watched in 234 different countries and territories across the world and has seen its viewership count climb into the millions.
It has also given baseball fans the ability to stream more than 50,000 distinct games. To celebrate MLB.TV’s 20th anniversary, fans will be able to stream games for free on Friday.
“I think we learned to listen to our fans early on and we’ve kept that philosophy all the way through,” Garden said.
This season has been a record-setting one for MLB.TV. After fans watched more than 10 billion minutes on the service for the first time in 2021, MLB.TV is on pace to top 11 billion minutes this year. The four most-watched games ever have occurred in 2022 as have the three most-watched days.
With people discussing baseball’s space in the national sports consciousness, Garden says those are some of the numbers that prove just how strong MLB really is.
“People think baseball is dying because they look at the Nielsen ratings. They say, ‘Less people are watching and it’s gotten old.’ Here’s the part that they miss this whole time: We were streaming in 2002! We taught our young fans to leave where they were originally engaging with the platform and go somewhere else, and we provided them with a reliable solution.
“People are understanding the numbers on streaming services much more than they have in the past, and when you see that, you’re like, ‘Oh, [shoot]maybe baseball wasn’t dying this whole time.’”
Garden knows that for all the numbers to stay on an upward trajectory, innovation is the name of the game. For instance, MLB became the first sports league to stream live games to the iPhone and the iPad; the first to stream live video on connected devices; the first to embed live games on Facebook and Twitter; and the first to stream live video to a gaming console.
What’s next? One aspect Garden mentioned is the ability to tailor content to different groups of fans.
“I think the interactive space gives us a real opportunity to provide products to each specific segment of the audience in very unique ways. I think you’re going to continue to see all that,” he said.
Twenty years on, Garden admitted that MLB.TV has surpassed his expectations “in every single way,” which he says is a testament to the passion of baseball fans. But he is not content to rest on his laurels. The evolution of MLB.TV will continue.
“To see where we’re going to be in 20 years, we’re going to look back on this time and we’re going to look back on it the same way we looked back on it when we started,” Garden said. “That’s the beauty of technology. It moves forward fast with or without you.”