MLB on YouTube

For the second straight year, MLB and YouTube have teamed up for MLB Network-produced games on MLB’s YouTube channel. That covers four games this month, with two exclusive to YouTube and two also seen on local RSNs. The last one is Friday, September 25, and it will see the Cincinnati Reds on the road against the Minnesota Twins. Tim Katz, YouTube’s head of sports and news partnerships, and MLB Network’s Scott Braun (who’s called play-by-play for most of the YouTube games) both spoke to Awful Announcing this week about the partnership, with Katz saying that it’s part of their larger strategy to provide YouTube users with compelling content and give them engagement opportunities not available on a standard broadcast.

“The biggest thing for us, and even more broadly than just our sports strategy, is that we’re always looking to provide our users with great user experiences, which is obviously inclusive of making great content available to them. That’s the way we think about most things at YouTube.”

“And partnering with Major League Baseball gives us the opportunity to bring amazing content to our users, and bring it sort of front-and-center to our sports fans that are on the platform, to learn and engage and view a baseball game in a little bit of a different way. I think it’s the combination of one, we really want to make sure that our users get the best possible experience they can out of the platform, and two, as part of that, can we actually make viewing a baseball game more engaging that what it would be on just a linear broadcast?”

Some of the steps YouTube has taken to provide extra engagement include having top YouTube creators and various voices across baseball engaging in a live chat within each broadcast, polling viewers throughout the game and discussing those polls on the broadcast, and providing live pre- and post-game shows that touch on MLB and YouTube content. Examples of this can be seen in the Royals-Brewers broadcast from last week (seen at top, and available in full here). Katz said engaging YouTube’s creator community has paid off for them in other areas, and they think it’s a good fit for sports as well.

“The creator piece is, we think, a little bit of YouTube’s special sauce. It’s something that’s really unique to our community and our audience and our users. Many of them have huge followings on the platform. It’s just really what our users are accustomed to coming to the platform and seeing.”

“And we think our creators represent two things. One, for MLB, it’s a way they can bring in new fans or casual fans to watch the games and watch the games alongside their favorite creators, it’s a nice way to grow and expand the sport. But then second of course, it’s a great opportunity for those creators as well to engage with people around baseball. And we’re passionate about creating ways for them to interact with their audience.”

“It sort of works in all those ways really nicely. For users, it’s really engaging content, and what they’ve come to expect and love about YouTube. For our creators, it’s a great opportunity for them to sort of have a showcase moment for the content they’re creating, and also interact with each other. And then for Major League Baseball, it’s a great opportunity for them to engage and tap into the audiences that already exist on YouTube and for these creators.”

Speaking of that audience, which tends to be both younger and more global than the audience for a typical MLB Network broadcast or a typical RSN broadcast, Braun said he tries to always keep the audience in mind when he’s calling these games. But he wants to find the right balance of a broadcast that’s both welcoming for newer baseball fans and still engaging to those who are long-time fans of the sport.

“There’s people watching from just about anywhere on the planet. There are some tuning in from different countries where they were never taught baseball, and then of course, there are your usual fans that are tuning in for every pitch of every game. …I keep in mind the big picture maybe even a little bit more. You might have the fans that are tuning in for the first time as well as those who are watching for every pitch. It’s making sure that people are aware of the storylines that are going on within the game from both sides, and explaining things maybe a little bit more if possible.”

“On MLB Network, we have a very dedicated fanbase. And we’re still keeping those general guidelines in mind [there], but I might take this one step further with this audience in case there are new fans tuning in worldwide, we’re making them feel at home and making them aware of the terminology and the definitions within the game. But it is pretty much along the same lines of anything I’d be doing on any broadcast, it’s just going one step further, maybe following up with John Smoltz after a breakdown if he brings up some term or talks about something that deserves a follow-up.”

Braun said he also tries to discuss Statcast, social media, and other elements popular with younger fans a bit more on a YouTube broadcast than he might on a usual MLB Network broadcast.

“I definitely want to be able to connect with all age ranges, and especially the younger group of MLB fans. I think part of that is just incorporating these features, and then also maybe bringing up something about a player that will appeal to a younger audience even more so.”

“We have so much going on in the Statcast world, and I can’t tell you how many kids I meet that go, ‘Did you watch Aaron Judge last night? 112 miles per hour off the bat!’ For me, if I backtrack 20 years ago when I was a kid, that’s not the terminology I would have used, because it didn’t exist at the time. So I think having fun with Statcast too and making sure that I’m giving those numbers, I think that’s added to the job now.”

“And, I mean, I do that on MLBN games anyway, but I’m definitely making sure that we incorporate a good amount of Statcast information [on the YouTube broadcasts]. Because I think there’s a hunger for more of that info from the audience that’s watching.”

Here are some highlights from last week’s YouTube broadcast:

Braun said another advantage of the YouTube broadcasts is the limited commercial interruption they have on pre- and post-game shows.

“The pre-game and the post-game, it’s pretty much in the 30ish-minute range of wall-to-wall coverage. There aren’t many breaks in there. So we’re really just giving you as much as we can of the experience.”

The polling piece of this is also interesting, as it’s an attempt to incorporate instant viewer feedback into a live broadcast. Katz said YouTube thinks that’s an important part of the puzzle, and a way to keep the audience engaged.

“It’s really just ways we can find deeper engagement and provide great experiences to our users. We think it’s just more compelling to have more of a two-way conversation with fans versus the one-way conversation that people are accustomed to on linear TV. Our platform lends itself nicely to having that. And it’s cool to see the poll questions and the chat with creators. All of that creates this atmosphere of interactivity and engagement that we hope leads to more viewership and richer user experiences and more interest in the games.”

And Braun said that’s a nice addition for the broadcasters too.

“Incorporating the polls, it’s very subtle. At the bottom, there will be a poll, and sometimes we even play along during the broadcast. When you’re watching from home or travelling or wherever, you click your answer, and we get the live results, and we get to incorporate that into the broadcast. So it’s extra content and extra connection with the fans. And then of course there’s also the live chat, which is featured on the side of the screen as well. You’re able to see voices around baseball and YouTube creators that are discussing the game, discussing topics, discussing storylines.”

“And for me, as a broadcaster and as a play-by-play guy, I’m always making sure that I can connect with the fan who watches every second of every game and the fan who is maybe tuning in for the first time ever. So it’s just another tool, I think, that can organically drive some of our conversations.”

Braun said the live chat is also useful to the broadcasters, especially for suggesting questions for in-game interviews.

“With the live chat, which I’ve liked since day one, we’ll have the usual in-game interview with a coach or with a player. And I’ll make sure to let everyone know, in advance if possible, that we’re going to be joined by that particular person. Then in the live chat, they’ll throw in some questions that they have and I can incorporate those questions into our interview. Which is awesome, because they might ask something that is out of left field and seems really random, but maybe that hits home with whoever we’re talking to. Or maybe that fan caught some particular moment that we didn’t in the past, or knows something special about them. So we have fun with it, and I think it’s been a really nice little feature.”

Katz said he’s appreciated working with MLB Network on this given their production expertise, and given the way they’ve tried to find the right broadcasters for each of these games.

“They’ve been great partners to us. We do not have expertise or experience producing live sporting events ourselves, so being able to tap into MLB Network has been a really great part of the relationship. There are a couple of things that we’ve been very happy about with the way they produce the games. The way they’ve thought about talent has been really smart. Fans are typically used to watching their clubs on their local regional sports network on sort of a day-in, day-out basis, so there’s an element of having your hometown announcers associated with the broadcast. What the network has done a nice job of is trying to find talent that has ties to the clubs.”

“We’ve had a play-by-play announcer, which has typically been Scott Braun, and we think his tone and his voice fits in really nicely with the younger audience that is watching games on YouTube versus on linear. And the color commentators, we’ve actually been going with three-person booths, and we try to get one person that has ties to each of the two clubs so that we have a little bit more of that local perspective for fans that they’ve been accustomed to with their RSN over time.”

Overall, Katz said YouTube’s been quite happy with the engagement they’ve seen with their MLB broadcasts, and they plan to look at more partnerships like this in the future.

“We’ve seen great response. My expectation is that we’ll continue to find opportunities where we can invest and do more, with Major League Baseball and also with other partners potentially down the road. We’ll continue to assess and analyze partnerships like this moving forward so that we can bring those great experiences to our users.”

“With these games, one, we’re bringing them to users for free. You don’t have to have a subscription to a MVPD. It’s available across every device. And we’re trying to present them in a more interactive way that we feel is compelling both to your day-to-day MLB fan, which tends to be a bit of an older audience, but also to our YouTube audience. And then we’re able to build out and test some of these interactive features and ways we can make sports more compelling on the platform. It really presents great opportunities. MLB has been great partners to us, and the network has been a great production partners to us, and we’re looking forward to building on this and potentially other opportunities in sports.”

The Reds-Twins game can be seen on at 8 p.m. Eastern Friday, September 25.

About Andrew Bucholtz

Andrew Bucholtz has been covering sports media for Awful Announcing since 2012. He is also a staff writer for The Comeback. His previous work includes time at Yahoo! Sports Canada and Black Press.