Friday, June 15, 2018

Rob Manfred is in the Jackpot - CBA Cut Hallion-Collins

MLB Advanced Media has been working overtime to take down the viral video showing Umpire and Crew Chief Tom Hallion's interaction with ejected Mets Manager Terry Collins after Adam Hamari ejected Noah Syndergaard for throwing at Dodgers batter Chase Utley in 2016, and Commissioner Rob Manfred has now explained why while inadvertently hinting at a bigger problem in baseball: declining attendance figures.

Rob Manfred is in the Jackpot with MLB fans.
According to Manfred's statement to media, during the most recent contract negotiations with its umpires, the league and umpires agreed that, in exchange for umpires wearing microphones during select games, certain interactions would not be made public. Manfred characterized the Hallion-Syndergaard-Collins episode as one such interaction, explaining that in order to live up to the collective bargaining agreement with the World Umpires Association, the League had "no choice" but to order the mass takedown.

Did Manfred just use the "blame the umps" defense to explain why MLB is killing social media's "OMG a rare behind the scenes video from MLB!" party?

The knee-jerk reaction here is that actively working to keep such an already-leaked video private does more to turn fans off from the sport than doing nothing at all.

In terms of overall fan media and sharing of MLB content, Manfred explained, "that's a balance between fan engagement on the one hand and protecting our intellectual property on the other...We have really become much more open about the idea of being on every platform where our fans want to engage with the game. It's been a big shift in terms of our business priorities. That's part of that shift."

Gil's Call: The fan engagement numbers for baseball aren't flattering relative to where the sport was several years ago, and compared to how other sports have evolved. For instance, while NBA and NHL attendance have a history of recent growth, Major League Baseball attendance has significantly decreased since 2015, and 2018 isn't shaping up to be all that promising, either.

One of these leagues' trends is clearly not like the others.
Some have posited that baseball is losing younger fans, in particular, precisely because of the MLBAM vs fan content policy and debate to which Manfred referred above, saying the league has "evolved."

Whether you're in the "this is why MLB is losing fans" camp or not, in response to Manfred's attempt to erase the Hallion-Collins video, there's a bit more to it that goes beyond a tidy "it's in the CBA" response.

For instance, like him or hate him, in the Los Angeles market, Dodgerfilms—a season ticket holder who attends Dodger games and previously brought his video camera, compiling highlights each game that featured crowd reaction from the Left Field Pavilion based on game and non-game events alike—was a way for baseball fans to connect with the in-stadium fan experience, and to see what happens at Dodger Stadium in a city where half of its residents still cannot watch Dodger games due to a television network dispute (is this the fifth or sixth year since the Dodgers got yanked off every service provider not named Spectrum? Before that, it was Houston that couldn't watch Astros games).

What a great way to connect with fans, right? Wrong.

The team and/or league effectively shut down Dodgerfilms several seasons ago, and with it, a dedicated cohort of followers and fans.

By contrast, the NHL is going after young fans via social media while, instead of going the cease-and-desist route, the NBA's 76ers hired a superfan who created a Twitter account for the team's mascot.

In a digital age where intellectual property is of key concern to rights-holders such as Major League Baseball, consider, perhaps, how other comparable sport leagues with positive-trending cumulative annual attendance treat their fan content creators.

Twitter Followers & Facebook Likes by Sports League:
@MLB: 8.39 million Twitter followers & 6.9 million Facebook likes.
@MLS: 3.22 million Twitter followers & 2.9 million Facebook likes.
@NBA: 27.9 million Twitter followers & 36 million Facebook likes.
@NFL: 24.7 million Twitter followers & 17 million Facebook likes.
@NHL: 6.29 million Twitter followers & 4.5 million Facebook likes.
@WWE: 10.3 million Twitter followers & 39 million Facebook likes.

NBA looks at content sharing as a positive.
NBA: Commissioner Adam Silver famously explained the National Basketball Association's stance on copyright vs public access: "We promote the posting of our highlights...We analogize our strategy to snacks versus meals. If we provide those snacks to our fans on a free basis, they're still going to want to eat meals — which are our games. There is no substitute for the live game experience. We believe that greater fan engagement through social media helps drive television ratings."

In stark contrast to MLB's declining numbers, the NBA set a new annual attendance record for the fourth straight year in 2018, with 22,124,559 fans attending games over the 2017-18 season, surpassing 2016-17's then-record number of 21,997,412.

The League shares in revenue on videos that contain its intellectual property, but allows fans to post unedited highlights, clips, and other extended videos of gameplay—even allowing for ad revenue-based profit sharing—because Silver's sport made the decision to allow sharing in expose more people, and more potential fans, to the game.

Search for a particular NBA game on YouTube and there will be multiple videos from a multitude of accounts not connected with the league, and these videos stay online week after week, year after year. A league without constant takedown threats seems so much friendlier and easier to follow.

NHL values digital media's ability to connect.
NHL: National Hockey League Commissioner Gary Bettman relishes in receiving boos from hockey fans—it's an NHL tradition—but make no mistake about it: hockey's chief knows how to drive the sport and this year's Stanley Cup Final between the Washington Capitals and upstart Vegas Golden Knights was the most watched in three seasons, when Original Six stronghold Chicago won the 2015 Cup, proving that professional hockey is alive and well.

For instance, Game 1's rating amongst young fans aged 18-34 was up 27% since the last time Game 1 of the Final went head-to-head with an NBA Game 7 (basketball is more popular than hockey in media), and the NHL actually beat NBA in cumulative attendance in 2018.

Like the NBA, NHL attendance broke a record in 2017-18, averaging 17,446 per game (that's overcapacity in about half of the League's arenas), or 22,174,263 fans during the 2017-18 season (just about 50,000 more than the NBA), compared to 21,525,777 in 2015-16. Excluding the 31st team brings that number back to 21,459,963, which is similar to attendance over recent seasons in that league.

Like Silver, Bettman knows that allowing social media sharing of league video is good for the game, especially with a sport that rarely makes SportsCenter unless it's the Stanley Cup Final or an extremely unusual play: "Historically, we were a league that was under-served by traditional media, so the ability to use digital platforms and connect with our fans more than ever before...has been vitally important to us."

Bettman's motivations may be slightly different than Silver's in a "this is our chance!" motif that the more culturally popular NBA need not contend with, but the conclusion is one and the same for a league that thrives on playing the underdog in American sports: "We’re growing season by season with record engagement, record attendance, record revenue. We think the digital space is responsible for that."

For instance, take the niche, which routinely and regularly clips off videos of—what else—hockey fights and their surrounding context, and posts the clips throughout the season, unedited. This could well be considered the intellectual property of the NHL, since the website doesn't transform, educate, comment, or otherwise claim Fair Use of the material, but the NHL lets the videos stay afloat.

Why? Because it grows the game and the league encourages that kind of sharing.

MLB is still considering its digital options.
MLB: Back to baseball, Manfred still refers to the "balance between fan engagement on the one hand and protecting our intellectual property on the other." Unlike NBA's Silver, who readily admits the league's property may be posted and shared without consent, and nonetheless encourages this sharing, or NHL's Bettman, who considers digital sharing a "win" even if the league technically owns the footage, MLB Commissioner Manfred portrays his office as still trying to weigh the greater benefit: to keep and control exclusive rights to game footage at the potential expense of keeping some (potential) fans from experiencing the games, or to take a more cavalier approach to content sharing even if that means potential infringement.

Careful, though. MLB's indecision may leave it lagging behind the others who have embraced new media.

Conclusion: At the end of the day, if, as Manfred says, the CBA requires the leaked mic'd conversation to stay out of the public eye, then it absolutely must remain private...but to now initiate takedowns of every user who uploads the violative video is futile, but even worse, illustrates a certain out-of-touch quality between Corporate and Client.

Once something of that magnitude makes its rounds on the Internet, no amount of takedowns will erase its existence—not from consumers' memories and not even from the Internet itself: that's the fruitless part of the exercise. The video already made its way to the big media outlets—there's no real logical point in pretending it never existed.

However, if this is indeed a CBA issue, the potentially careless part of this that collaterally indicates how—for all the great things MLBAM has done—far behind MLB's online presence is relative to the other sports concerns the source video's original upload date to YouTube: October 2017, where it lived in unassuming tranquility for eight months.

Memories: MLB rather you not see "the" clip.
It took a viral tweet from June 2018 to get MLB's attention, and the online expungement was ordered days later—after millions had already seen the infamous Collins clip. That's a lot of cat to put back in the proverbial bag.

Had the audio leaked timely, there's a chance Collins would still be under suspension for his vulgar language...

...which brings to light MLB's interesting response to the leaked video. When faced with mic'd-up ejection footage containing vulgar and profane language featuring a potential homophobic slur, MLB rather delete the video than acknowledge or address the naughty language.

That's quite a change from the league that stood behind Toronto's suspension of Kevin Pillar for an anti-gay slur.

At the time, Toronto journalist Cathal Kelly wrote that Pillar's suspension "doesn't address baseball's continued intolerance," and, although the Hallion/Collins clip is several years old, MLB's 2018 response to it all but confirms Kelly's conjecture:
This sort of bad day wouldn't be tolerated in a government office, or a school, or any other place of business. So why should it be condoned on a sports team, which is a far more visible workplace and, inarguably, far more influential? 
People aren't stupid. They understand the difference between something you wouldn't say and something you wish you hadn't said out loud to a non-sympathetic audience. This is plainly the second thing.
At least we'll always have Bill Haller and Earl Weaver. Despite its content, MLB shouldn't care too much about that video (and if the league didn't care about Hallion-Collins' language, why should it care about Haller-Weaver's)—after all, that was before the staffs were unified: Haller is American League property, not WUA or MLB. From a labor relations standpoint, that's none of "modern" MLB's concern, which likely cares little what the actual message was.

I recall when NHL referee Tim Peel called a penalty on then-Nashville skater James Neal. He said, on an open mic, "F* you, you're getting a f*ing embellishment." That was in 2015 and the video is still online. Nearly 1.5 million views in, the League has made no effort to take it down.
Related VideoJames Neal dives, ref calls him out 12/7/15.

Neither did the League care too much about a video of ref L'Ecuyer yelling "F* you" on an open mic.
Related VideoNHL Ref Yells F You Twice On His Mic.

Nor a 10-year-old video of Dan O'Halloran doing the same, a video so old Gary Thorne was in the booth!
Related VideoNHL Ref Drops the F-Bomb on live TV Mar 13, 2008

Actually, the NHL and NBA love to share audio from their officiating crews, but I digress...
Related VideoNHL Open Mic: Officiating ain't easy Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4.
Related VideoNHL LiveWire: Best of the Refs (from the NHL YouTube account itself).
Related VideoNBA referees wired 3 - featuring Rasheed Wallace ejection and more.

Sidebar: I left the National Football League out of the picture because playing once a week for 16 weeks is simply too small a sample size to perform much meaningful analysis, relative to the other sports...not to mention the relative ease of attending one football game on the weekend as opposed to another sport multiple times during the week.

For what it's worth, here's the NFL's stance on content sharing: "The NFL, as part of its copyright enforcement program, sends take-down notices to protect its valuable content from piracy."

And here's the NFL's recent attendance one website called an "empty seat epidemic," led, apparently by the Los Angeles Rams (didn't they just move to LA?), who, according to FiveThirtyEight, "are on course for a record they won’t be proud of." That record is the largest decline in average attendance in NFL history.


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