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The Future of Binge TV Belongs to America's Oldest Sport

Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

HBO’s much-hyped fifth-season premiere of Game of Thrones this month was a resounding success, not just with its record-high ratings but also the distinct lack of people hurling large objects at their screens. As any devotee of full rear nudity and beheadings knows, outages on the network's streaming service for cable subscribers, HBO Go, crippled last year's Thrones debut. Not this time around, and not on the network's new standalone digital streaming service. That's because HBO learned its lesson.

HBO Now is the network’s response to the rage induced by HBO Go constantly dropping streams last year during Thrones and new episodes of True Detective. As soon as the idea of a standalone service (once anathema to cable providers) became feasible, the company faced a decision. With 60 percent of its audience in the coveted 18-to-49 demographic, HBO had a lot at stake. Either the network could build HBO Now itself (modeled slightly after HBO Go’s architecture) or piggyback on a successful existing streaming network.

They opted for the latter, and the infrastructure didn't belong to Netflix or Time Warner or some other expected broadcast conglomerate. It was Major League Baseball's.

MLB Advanced Media, which has arguably the country’s most extensive and experienced broadband network for streaming live video, has been around since 2000 and is equally owned by the 30 MLB clubs. In addition to streaming most baseball games (more on that later), it handles the back-end duties for myriad other major sports. BAM, as it’s known in industry parlance, powers ESPN’s watch-anywhere app. It runs Turner Sports’ March Madness streaming. The World Wrestling Entertainment Network contracts out its $10-a-month service into BAM’s capable hands. Sony depends on BAM for PlayStation Vue streaming service. While the NFL is giddy about streaming a game on YouTube next season and the NBA’s League Pass service can’t even get all of its games into high-def, MLB is serving up 60 million streams on its Opening Day—a 60 percent bump from a year ago—with nary a hitch.

BAM is controlled by two people: MLB commissioner Rob Manfred and Bob Bowman, the league’s new president of business and media. Manfred took over in January from Bud Selig (who oversaw BAM’s birth back in 2000); Bowman just got a promotion from his last gig as CEO of Advanced Media. Bowman is still technically in charge of BAM, even with his updated business card, and that’s no accident. That titanic client list of BAM's would make its IPO worth billions. A $5 billion valuation would reach more than halfway to MLB’s $9 billion in total revenue from last year. You don’t make that kind of dough just by selling Cracker Jack.

Of all sclerotic, nostalgia-soaked industries, how is it that baseball became such a quiet titan online? Fans spent eons watching botched calls on broadcast replays before baseball relented to try out instant replay in games. That was in 2008, fully 22 years after the National Football League adopted its first instant replay measures. The history of electric line-judging in tennis goes back to 1974. Hell, the National Hockey League put a microchip in the puck. Even FIFA, perhaps the world’s most corrupt sports organization, came to its senses and ushered in goal-line technology. TV cameras in the infield dirt are one thing, but instituting actual next-gen technology that could better adjudicate baseball has long been pushed aside in favor of “the integrity of the game,” a nebulous nothing-phrase that rewards Luddism and revels in risk aversion. To put it mildly, Major League Baseball hasn’t always been quite as forward-thinking as it appears today.

What happened? Well, the Internet happened, and the notion of inevitability, that our culture was inexorably moving toward this point anyway, but that also doesn’t quite give MLB enough credit. In truth, Bowman happened. Insofar that baseball’s overlords could sense that rise of the ’net would bring the public some means of mass online content consumption—and baseball has a lot to consume: 2,430 regular-season games a year, not including playoffs—it was still a thing that would need to be built from scratch. MLB hired Bowman, a former president of ITT and budding internet executive, after the 2000 season.

In his first statement as MLB’s online czar, Bowman declared: “I am convinced that baseball has incredible content and interest which can be molded into an extraordinary Internet experience for our fans and a valuable business for our clubs.” Over the past 15 years, Bowman took what sounded like bureaucratic boilerplate and rode it to world domination. His buildup of spawned MLB.TV, the gold standard for professional sports streaming now in its thirteenth year. The head-start has paid off, and it couldn't have come at a better time for a sport that has seen its share of misfires in the past generation. Twenty years ago, baseball was reeling from the after-effects of the 1994 players strike, and the steroid era was barely a gleam in Jose Canseco's thigh. The sport is only just addressing how deliriously slow it can be.

But in hindsight, maybe it shouldn’t shock us that baseball devised and built a video archive and delivery system with such robust capacity. The game's unique, clockless structure—at-bats turn into outs which turn into innings, three outs at a time, you switch up, “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” every seventh inning, and so forth—feeds into its unparalleled fetish for record-keeping. Baseball fans think of a game the way a computer would with an internal file system: That home run was in the top of the fifth, but that three-run double was in the bottom of the ninth.

Basketball's rap, to cite one counterexample, is that you need only watch the last two minutes of a game to get the gist. Everything else falls into memory equally, as a liquid; for every amazing Steph Curry crossover-and-pull-up-jumper, I couldn’t tell you, for the life of me, when in the game it occurred. In baseball, where a home run in the bottom of the ninth of a tie game wins that game no matter what, structure trumps flow. That might not seem like a sexy tradeoff, but in terms of conceiving of the game as a functional archive—this goes here, that goes there—it’s pretty handy. And ask any baseball fan who literally scores at home: No other sport puts greater emphasis not just on how scores happen, but what led to them. Even when it comes to individual runs, baseball likes to tell the story from the beginning.

For a while in the late 1950s, legendary sportscaster Les Keiter performed full-on radio recreations of San Francisco Giants games for baseball-starved New Yorkers missing their departed team. He'd read the ticker-tape of the play-by-play and announce it as if he was watching live, even filibustering with made-up conferences at the mound during delays, and clinking a drumstick against a wood block as his own Foley artist to mimic the crack of the bat. At the peak of this quaint stunt, some 300,000 people tuned in nightly.

In the years since lost Giants fans figured out how to get their fix, Major League Baseball (and other live sports, resistant as they are to recording) have kept fans subscribing to cable when they otherwise would be perfectly happy to cut the cord. In this, BAM's flexibility is another godsend to cable: It could revamp how we order and stream boxing title fights, or it could put decades of entire soap opera libraries or how-to shows online. The NFL should just outsource its streaming operation BAM and spend more time figuring how to not screw up the most popular sport in America. The fallout from concussions may or may not make football extinct, but I’m sure MLB execs much prefer their own situation to whatever future NFL commissioner Roger Goodell faces.

Sixty million streams on Opening Day is great, and a glitch-free Thrones premiere is maybe even better news. The last major hurdle for Manfred, Bowman & Co. remains baseball's own guarded relationship with fans in teams' home markets. Current rules dictate that fans can’t stream games inside teams' designated market areas because (as the logic/business sense goes) you should be watching either on TV or from the stands. Or, presumably, listening on the radio as an ad-libbing announcer clonks a stick against a block.

The idea that a fan in New York can’t stream a Mets game is downright archaic. (Legally, that is. Masking your IP so the service thinks you’re in, say, Boston is relatively easy enough.) Manfred thinks that wrinkle will be smoothed over by season’s end. Then MLB will be printing money. Users are forking over $130 a season for MLB.TV, and so long as the service can keep from alienating fans and media with inane takedown notices, there will be room to grow, across sports, across platforms, across existing media networks.

From his perch, Bowman doesn’t even acknowledge that he has competitors. “I think the biggest competitors that we have are inertia—do nothing—or ‘self done,’” he recently told TechCrunch. It’s an amazingly confident outlook, and as such, BAM’s focus these days is broader than ever. Baseball isn’t even concerned with fans using Periscope and Meerkat to offer pirate broadcasts of live games to audiences who must be desperate indeed.

Bowman’s being coy when he fails to cite competition, but the only other reasonable contenders are Netflix and Apple. That’s about all. Through BAM, baseball is poised to reclaim its fabled mantle as the provider of America's pastime, albeit the 2015 version: silently staring down at tiny, glowing screens.