This week Major League Baseball took on Slingbox, the innovative device that connects to your television and home internet port, allowing you to watch TV on your home computer or laptop. It's a pretty amazing technology, and unsurprisingly content providers – specifically ones like the MLB that enforce blackout provisions – are mobilizing against it. This week Michael Mellis of Major League Baseball Advanced Media (MLBAM), told the Hollywood Reporter,
Of course, what they [Slingmedia] are doing is not legal…We and other leagues have formed a group to study the issue and plan our response. A lot depends on ongoing discussions. Plus, there's no guarantee that Slingbox will be around next year. It's a startup.
But why exactly would the Slingbox be illegal, and who could it be hurting? Last year, George Kliavkoff, VP of MLBAM told Slingbox's Marketing VP that, “Your interpretation of the (cable and satellite user agreement) is wrong,” and that Sling Media's users “are violating the scope of their user agreements.”
But if anything, local cable providers should be happy with place-shifting technologies like Slingbox, which give users new opportunities to watch shows – at work, while traveling, or on vacation. As Blake Krikorian, Sling Media's CEO (And PK IP3 award winner) put it,
“I think for the cable company this is a great thing, I think a product like this is going to help drive their services…With Sling in the home, you could reach me for 10 hours a day that you couldn't reach me before.”
The arguments MLBAM makes against Slingbox – that it interferes with local broadcasters, that it will lead to piracy – have all been heard, and refuted before, in the broadcast flag debate. Since Slingbox's signals are encrypted to prevent recording, both content providers and traditional broadcasters stand to gain by the new technology.
The real conflict is with baseball's emerging Advanced Media division, the MLBAM. Krikorian told the Hollywood reporter,
It's incredibly important to understand that there are two very different players, MLB and MLBAM…One of the things that a Slingbox does is it gives more value to consumers who purchase MLB extra innings from DirecTV or their cable company. If I want to watch a San Francisco Giants game and I live in Los Angeles, Sling isn't going to help me unless I sign up for MLB extra innings. So what Slingbox does is it helps the existing broadcast business model. I think the league understands this and if there's been any pushback, it's coming from one place, MLBAM.
MLBAM fears that Slingbox might interfere with their MLB.tv, which pipes live video of games over the internet for a monthly fee. Because MLB.tv only broadcasts out of market, whereas Slingbox runs your local broadcaster or cable provider, the two services don't overlap when you are at home. But once you leave your broadcaster's market – to go to work or go on vacation – Slingbox's services overlap with MLB.tv's. In this sort of situation, MLBAM seeks to double-charge its customers – once to get the game in-market at home, and again out-of-market at work or out traveling. MLBAM probably fears that Slingbox could undermine this business plan.
MLBAM and content providers generally can't – and shouldn't – dictate future innovation simply to protect existing business models. After all, Baseball is a public trust. It would be best for both them and us if MLBAM creatively harnessed the Slingbox to expand its viewer base, rather than try to keep it out of the market.