You can draw a straight line from one regular season baseball game in 2002 directly to Disney+. Welcome to the world of MLBAM.
On the field and in the stands, football is king in the United States. It’s been that way for years. But in terms of media rights, Major League Baseball has been the biggest player in the game for nearly two decades.
MLB Advanced Media (MLBAM, or just BAM) works out of an office at Chelsea Market, just above the bustle of tourists and New Yorkers on their lunch breaks — many of whom have no idea they were mere feet away from the heartbeat of the national pastime.
And so much more.
The BAM revolution began in 2000 under then-commissioner Bud Selig to bring digital properties from all 30 clubs under one umbrella. Over 21 years of mergers, partnerships, and offshoots, MLB Advanced Media used its industry-leading infrastructure to extend beyond baseball and into hockey, golf, wrestling, regional sports networks, and even premium TV.
As the 2021 World Series touches off in Houston, there’s no better time to get to know BAM.
BAM Beyond Baseball
BAM’s foray into video began somewhat quietly in August 2002 when it streamed its first-ever game on MLB.com. 30,000 people tuned in that day to watch the Yankees beat the Rangers, 10-3. That led to a pennant race streaming packing a few weeks later, and in 2003, the full-season package MLB.TV.
It took just two years from the time MLB.TV launched its proper season-long offering for other organizations to come calling. In 2005, BAM helped CBS stream every game of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament for the first time. With basketball fans previously confined to their in-market tournament games and periodic whip-around coverage, BAM’s streaming technology set the stage for the eventual multi-screen basketball frenzy that has come to define the first weekend of the tournament.
This was also around the time BAM was assigned the patent that has led to perhaps the most frustrating aspect of baseball media even today.
In late 2004, BAM filed the patent for its technology that could geolocate users and block them from viewing in-market games. In the early 2000s, this wasn’t a major problem, as most viewers still paid for cable and could turn to their Regional Sports Networks. Now, in an era of cord-cutting, the league’s blackout restrictions can keep fans from accessing their favorite teams.
Nowhere is this more of a problem than in Iowa, of all places — a state with no Major League team, but with six teams blacked out to residents and cable packages that do not cover each of those teams.
The blackout rules may be maddening to fans, but it was another example of how BAM was ahead of its time. Other leagues eventually used that same infrastructure to control their own streaming access — and to scale up as the demand for live streaming events continued to increase.
And so BAM continued to grow. While it continued to lead the way in streaming services, offering MLB AtBat — MLB’s streaming video app — by 2007 and streaming in 720p high-definition a year later, it took on more clients outside of just baseball. This included, ESPN, which was preparing to launch the WatchESPN platform in 2010 that later rebranded as part of the ESPN app. BAM also entered into an agreement with WWE to launch its streaming service in 2014.
By late 2014, HBO hired MLB to develop the back-end to what became known as HBO Now. With Playstation Vue soon to launch as well and a deal brewing with the NHL, BAM had reached an inflection point.
It was dead set on continuing to set the streaming standard from a baseball perspective, but needed to find the right way to branch off to serve its other clients.
In February 2015, BAMTech officially spun off from BAM to serve the streaming needs of outside organizations. MLB and NHL retained ownership stakes in BAMTech as the company sought outside investors, and a year later, Disney purchased its own minority stake for $1 billion.
What came next was a period of accelerated growth, with BAMTech reaching deals with FOX Sports, MLS, Riot Games, later launching BAMTech Europe and partnering with Eurosport.
Eurosport, which implemented BAMTech’s back-end platform in 2017, brought with it 60 million monthly users across 52 countries. It enabled BAMTech to open offices in Amsterdam and Manchester, making it a truly global company.
With that, came new challenges, like dealing with different currencies and privacy rules, as Disney streaming executive VP Joe Inzerillo explained in a piece on streamingmedia.com:
“You can’t just be good in your home territory,” he said. “You have to be good everywhere, and you might not be able to make the kind of investments you need to make in content.”
The Disney Takeover
Disney upped its ownership in MLBAM to a controlling stake of 75% in 2016 for $1.58 billion, giving the company a $3.75 billion estimated valuation. With Mickey Mouse already owning ESPN, the company soon announced what became ESPN+ —the OTT (over the top) streaming service. Unlike WatchESPN, ESPN+ continues to exist independent of cable subscriptions, allowing leagues to negotiate directly for ESPN+ rights packages.
For MLB, this meant a huge financial windfall to the tune of $50 million per team.
(Keep that in mind the next time a small-market, low-payroll team cries poverty.)
Disney+, the pure Disney companion to ESPN+, came shortly after, and as of July 2021, had 116 million users. Hulu’s live TV offering came in 2017, hastening the formulation of the now-famous “Disney bundle” of Disney+, ESPN+, and Hulu for a single monthly fee.
BAMTech soon became the more aptly named Disney Streaming Services, and earlier this year, Disney bought the NHL’s 10% ownership stake in the entity for $355 million. It could soon take MLB’s 15%, leaving the company entirely to Disney.
And to think.
This Disney-owned streaming and technology giant, complete with the Star Wars and Marvel Studios catalogs, started with 30,000 people watching the Yankees beat up on the Rangers back in the summer of ’02.