SVG Summit: Sports Nets Look To Bring Fans Inside the Diamond with Baseball Coverage

The coverage of baseball on television has changed dramatically over the past decade. For one thing, it’s about a lot more than just television, as sports networks are tasked with catering to fans that now consume the game on multiple screens at once thanks to proliferation of online streaming services and mobile device apps. However, when it comes down to the heart of today’s baseball coverage – both on a national and regional level – the key remains finding new ways to bring fans closer to the action on the field.

“Our mission statement from the very beginning was to bring the viewer close to the field, especially with audio,” said Jerry Steinberg, Field Operations and Engineering for Fox Sports during a baseball-centric panel at the SVG Summit last week in New York City. “When we first got the baseball [rights] deal in 1996 all you really heard was the announcers and the crowd. It’s totally different now. In bringing the viewer close to the playing field it allows the directors and producers to better tell their story and it becomes a lot more engaging television for the fans.”

Telling the Story Between Pitches
Fox Sports has worked to integrate comprehensive on-field audio coverage into its telecasts, as well as a variety of unique camera angles and various high-speed cameras to illustrate the microscopic details of the game. However, in addition to these technologically driven storytelling devices, producers and directors also must take advantage of what makes the game of baseball unique – the downtime.

“I always find the moments between the pitches are full of interesting happenings, said John Moore, MLB director for YES Network and Fox Sports. “In a basketball game, I find the timeouts between action become routine and there isn’t much going on. But in baseball you’ve got 10 guys in the dugout, the manager and coaches, the guys in the bullpen, the players on the field all interacting in separate stories between each pitch. It’s a challenge to cover all that but it’s a lot of fun. There is a lot more going on there then the casual fan would think and it is our job to show them that.”

Breaking Down the Walls of the Baseball Compound
Perhaps the most significant trend in remote sports production over the past two years has been the rise of “virtual compound” workflows that allow the on-site truck compound to share content with the home broadcast center and vice-versa. Baseball is no stranger to this trend as several networks have already begun instilling workflows that allow on-site teams to delve into their vast content libraries at the broadcast center and allow those editors at home to instantly access content from the live game at the ballpark.

“We are looking to build upon the infrastructure of file sharing since we have the strength and breadth of the ESPN library and should something happen inside the confines of a live game that demands a bit more context and perspective,” said Tom Archer, ESPN’s Sunday Night Baseball Coordinating Producer. “The ability to look in and seamlessly have things sent to you or go into a library and pull things out in almost real-time is borderline revolutionary.”

The Rise of Replay on the Diamond
Much of the discussion at baseball’s winter meetings this year centered on the league’s plans to introduce instant replay an exponentially larger scale next season.  Much of the infrastructure and operations for this sprawling new ballpark-by-ballpark system will rest on the shoulders of MLB Advanced Media.

“There is some construction going on, servers in place, people moving around – but its still all being discussed,” said Dinn Mann, EVP, Content, MLBAM. “I can tell you that there is still a level of excitement about it and level of nervousness about it, but its definitely more excitement than nervousness.”

Steinberg adds that baseball must look to avoid the game-delay issues that have plagued the NFL since it introduced its current challenge-based instant replay in 1999. “The worst time in the NFL game is when the ref is under the hood and you don’t know whether to break or stay – your trapped,” he said. “There’s got to be a better workflow for them to figure that out and I hope [MLB] will do that.”

Studio Shows and Social Media Look to Keep Young Fans Engaged
Of course, while the ballgames themselves remain the bread-and-butter programming for sports networks, studio shows and shoulder programming have never been more integral to how the game is covered. MLB Network, for example, has transformed itself into a fully-fledged 24-hour network that caters to the baseball junky – both in-season and out. During the season, the network’s programming slate centers around its flagship program, MLB Tonight, which relies on the comprehensive IP network that interlinks its Secaucus, NJ-headquarters with all 30 ballparks.

“MLB Tonight is kind of like having NFL RedZone every single night,” said Susan Stone, SVP, Operations and Engineering, MLB Network. “We have an integration producer whose job it is to watch all the games and see where the big moments are. Due to the great access and connectivity that we have at all the ballparks, we can go to any ballpark at anytime. That really engages the viewer and especially this [younger] generation that has grown up expecting more immediate results.”

That younger generation not only wants instant gratification when consuming baseball content – it also wants to consume it on a multitude of devices. MLBAM has led the way in developing the kind of multiscreen experiences that aim to keep an increasingly fidgety generation of sports fans interested in the often sluggishly paced game of baseball.

“If you look at the [younger] generation they are interacting with and focusing most of their attention on mobile devices and smaller screens,” said Mann. “We focus on making sure our apps are designed with them in mind and that our websites are designed responsibly designed so they work on a tablet or phone. It’s not just about content; Its about the overall interactive fan experience – that could be about merchandise, or social interaction or in-venue options if they’re at the game.”

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