JANUARY 26, 2004
Baseball Stat Breakthrough - At What Cost?
By Steve Lombardi, NetShrine.com

“The eye in the sky does not lie” is an expression that you hear often from those involved with professional football.  What they mean is simple: No matter what a player, coach, or official may claim happened on the field during a game, the truth will be shown in the review of the game film.

Major League Baseball is about to enter the age of “the eye in the sky.”  According to Alan Schwarz’ column in the February 2, 2004 issue of Baseball America, mlb.com is entering a “three-year plan to have up to six cameras in every major league stadium capturing everything – from line-drive trajectories to outfielder running speeds.”  It will begin this spring, where “select” parks will have “a three-camera set-up to measure pitch speeds, locations and breaks – to automate the collection of pitch data.”

According to Schwarz, “mlb.com is in talks with a Seattle stat company Tendu to work together on the real-time processing of the data” and “mlb.com’s plan is to make all its data available on the Website, probably as part of a subscription service.”

As Schwarz states in his feature, this “will afford fans a whole new picture of the game” – which is a good thing.  Perhaps “the eye” will be the answer to the questions on true fielding range, pitch movement, best base runners, etc.

But, the curious wrinkle is that mlb.com is considering making this information a “Pay-per-view” event.  Who would be willing to “pay” for this information?

Ball clubs would pay, without question.  Player agents may be interested – or, at least, they should be interested.  Firms like Baseball Info Solutions, ESPN and Baseball Prospectus would most likely be willing to pony up the subscription costs.  But, what about “Joe Fan” – will they pay?

The next natural question, here, is: Why would "the average fan" pay?  Does it not make sense that “the fan” would have access to this information once it is published by those “firms” (such as the aforementioned examples)?  Why else would the big boys subscribe?  They are going to use the data in the products that they offer to the fan (on the web and in books).

It is highly doubtful that “Joe Fan” on the web, right out of the blocks, cold, is going to have a bone rattling craving to see who is the best fielding SS in the American League Central, based on video driven data – to the point where he is willing to lay out some disposal income.  This is especially true when he knows that all he has to do is wait a week or two before someone like Rob Neyer (who will have the data) writes about it on the web for free.

Therefore, it does seem silly to expect "the average fan" to fork over some dough in order to get this information.  The folks at mlb.com must realize this, no?  And, if they do, how much money do they expect to collect in subscriptions?  How many Baseball Info Solutions, ESPN and Baseball Prospectus type groups are out there?  We know there are only 30 major league teams.  Let us go wild – and, say there are 200 “organizations” willing to pay for this data.  How much is mlb.com going to make there?  One hundred thousand dollars a year?  Two hundred thousand dollars?  Is that worth it?

Considering that it is going to cost mlb.com about $3 million (ballpark, if you excuse the pun) to set this up once it is full blown and in every park, and that they will have to pay staff to operate the system, and pay their data vendor, it will take several years before mlb.com can hope to break even with subscriptions as an offset to costs.

Would it not make more sense to make this information available for free at mlb.com, just as batting averages and earned run averages are now, and use the traffic that this data will draw (if it were free) to run up the rates for advertisers and sponsors? 

It is a win-win situation.  The money collectors at mlb.com get a deeper pocket to go after and the fans get some great data for free.

There is an old line about baseball fans being addicts and their heroin is statistics.  This is probably what mlb.com is banking on.  But, what mlb.com probably does not realize is that most drug dealers give the “new user” their goods for free at first – to get the user “hooked” – and then later charge for the drugs (once the user is addicted and will do anything for them).

Of course, there are some fans who are already hooked on this type of baseball information.  I am one of them; and, more than likely, if you are reading this, there is a good chance that you may be as well.

Come on mlb.com, for the stat junkie, please do the right thing.  It is bad enough that we have to pay $4 for bottled water at a ballpark near you.  Don’t make us pay $99.95 to find out which National League player is truly the best at going from first to third, on grass, in night games, during the month of July.  Isn’t it sad enough that we want to know in the first place? 

Be a sport and throw a dog a bone - or, more so, in this case, please do not plug up that knothole in the fence behind the eye in the sky.........  In the words of Roger Rabbit "P-p-p-p-p-lee-eaze?"  Whaddaya say Bud?

Steve Lombardi is the Creator & Curator of NetShrine.com.  Scrawling On The Scorecard appears regularly during the baseball season and sporadically during the off-season.  Steve can be contacted at sots@netshrine.com

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