Major League Baseball, the self-proclaimed national pastime, announced plans Tuesday to cut off the free Internet broadcasts of its games.
Starting around opening day, fans who want to listen to games over the Web will have to buy a subscription from Major League Baseball or its new partner, Seattle-based RealNetworks. The deal calls for RealNetworks to pay upward of $20 million over three years for the Internet rights to the games.
The move reflects the team owners' belief that unique, valuable programming should not be available for free over the Net, as it largely has been. "I think the Internet got off on the wrong foot," said Bob Bowman, chief executive of Major League Baseball's online arm.
RealNetworks plans to charge $4.95 per month to hear the games live or on replay. Major League Baseball plans to sell a pass to all the games for an annual fee of $9.95, with subscribers receiving a $10 gift certificate from baseball's online store.
The owners are hardly alone in wanting to transform free into paid on the Net. The National Basketball Assn. made the switch four years ago and now charges $29.95 per year. Napster, the popular online music-swapping service, wants to make a similar leap this summer.
Although the notion that content should be free is deeply ingrained in Internet culture, the spigot of free programming may be closing. That's because the venture-capital-fueled start-ups responsible for many of the giveaways are suffering or gone, said analyst David Card of Jupiter Media Metrix.
"I'm sure you'll see a rash of subscription models" from major media companies, Card said. "However, all the same challenges exist."
Analyst Rob Enderle noted that consumers have been cool to the vast majority of subscription services on the Net, particularly if they're not pornographic. He also wondered whether consumers will be willing to pay for something they have to be sitting at their computer to receive.
Subscribers to the baseball service will be able to listen to either the home or away broadcasts of all major league games, along with French and Spanish versions. They'll also be able to watch game statistics with an animated diamond showing who's on base.
The Internet feeds previously were under the control of the local radio stations that broadcast the games. But Bowman said Major League Baseball's contracts with the stations gave it the power to reclaim the rights to Internet transmissions.
The switch won't change the sound of the feeds on the Net--they'll still be provided by the local radio stations. But those stations' Web sites will no longer carry the games.
Another impact of the switch is to pull the games off of Yahoo, which had become one of the main sources of Net baseball feeds.
One of the fans angered by the move is Ed Lamoureux, a Long Beach native and lifelong Angels follower who's also an expert in new media theory.
The initial price is low, he said, but it's an unsettling harbinger of what may come. "It's giving the industry signs that users are willing to pay per view," said Lamoureux, an associate professor of speech communications and multimedia at Bradley University in Peoria, Ill.
Bowman contended that "truly unique and valuable content is generally subscripted content." While "the Internet tried to make it free," he said, "wiser organizations" are starting to insist on payment.
Responded Lamoureux, "I think the fan has value. And major-league sports in America are moving further and further away from the value of the fan.
"The ticket prices are such that I can't take my family to a game anymore . . . They're pricing their content out of the market."
There isn't a huge following for baseball on the Net, with Bowman estimating about 1,000 to 2,000 fans per game. This is a mix of people listening at work and displaced fans like Lamoureux who can't find their team on the local airwaves.
But David Brotherton, a spokesman for RealNetworks, said baseball apparently is the most popular professional sport on the Net. The company has added 25,000 subscribers in the two months since it started offering NBA games, Brotherton said.
The baseball games will be added to the NBA games and other programming in RealNetworks's GoldPass subscription service without an increase in the $9.95 monthly fee, Brotherton said.
On May 1, baseball plans to launch another subscription service with the help of Virage Inc. For an as-yet undetermined fee, subscribers will be able to search for and view highlights from any major league game.