Socially Awkward to Socially Active: MLB Online

This is the first of four stories on Major League Baseball and social media. Full disclosure: Major League Baseball Advanced Media employs FanGraphs contributor Paul Swydan, who wrote this series.

The evening of Nov. 11, 2010, turned into a pretty frustrating one for Kyle Scott. On that night, Scott, who runs the popular Philadelphia sports blog Crossing Broad, got an email from YouTube telling him that several baseball videos he’d posted were being removed from the site. While the videos were short — none exceeded 30 seconds — and contained scant game footage, they’d apparently gotten the attention of Major League Baseball Advanced Media. It wasn’t the first time that Scott had run afoul of MLBAM, but he was frustrated enough by the situation to write about it the next day. “They were short clips that we used for a quick laugh,” Scott says now. The Internet site The Big Lead picked up Scott’s story, and Scott says most readers “sympathized with our frustrations.” That MLBAM put the kabosh on Scott’s videos seems counterintuitive for a sport that’s constantly trying to expand its brand — and 15 months after getting the YouTube email, Crossing Broad averages nearly 1 million page views a month.

So is MLB a big-league bully — or is it simply protecting itself? And how does the league stack up against its peers on the American sports landscape? To figure that out, you first have to take a look at Scott’s case — or more specifically, to YouTube, where the league’s social-media firestorm began. Not only did MLB not post their own videos on YouTube, they actively sought to remove videos that fans had posted — a decision that ran counter to other sports leagues, which never took such heavy handed measures. Sometimes, as in Scott’s case, the deletions left a very public trail — and that critical fallout can have a lasting effect. But while MLBAM could have been more diplomatic about its position, the league’s online media arm had a practical business reason for taking such a hard line: the moneymaker called

One of the most profitable products ever released on the internet, may have its share of problems, but it has been well worth the money of its tens of thousands of subscribers. The fact that MLBAM quickly figured out a strategy for monetizing Internet content pushed the league to the digital forefront. But socially, the league has hardly been a leader. Initially, leagues like the NBA gave its fans the power to go viral by pouring videos onto its YouTube channel. Baseball didn’t, and it missed an early opportunity. “Sharing content and allowing it to go viral is a critical component of success in the social media sphere,” says espnW contributor and self-proclaimed social media junkie Amanda Rykoff. “It’s not a coincidence that the NBA dominates the four U.S.-based sports leagues in the social media arena.”

YouTube aside, the league initially made an effort to get out in front of social media, creating league and team pages for all 30 franchises on both Facebook and on Twitter. While that was a good start, MLBAM employees controlled most or all of the information for those feeds. That meant that the content often lacked the teams’ individual personalities — if the content had any personality at all. The lack of personality on Twitter became a very real issue two years ago, when news leaked in April 2010 that MLBAM had enacted a restrictive social media policy that made its employees eliminate all personal tweets and stick only to baseball. While the story may have been overblown, the damage had been done in the court of public opinion. Perhaps as a result of such public hiccups, @MLB still trails @nfl and @NBA on Twitter.


League Twitter Followers*
NBA 4,271,257
NFL 2,966,340
MLB 1,806,003
NHL 995,059

* As of Mar. 4, 2012

As you can see, @NBA is crushing its competition. The league has more followers than @MLB and @NHL, combined. Major League Baseball isn’t faring any better on Facebook, either:


League Facebook Likes*
NBA 11,820,813
NFL 4,869,670
NHL 2,148,362
MLB 1,027,758

* As of Mar. 4, 2012

Here, MLB trails all three leagues — including the NHL, which has worked hard to create an active social media base. In 2009, the NHL organized official fan ‘tweet-ups’ during the Stanley Cup playoffs as one of its first major forays in the social-media age. “Though the NHL is regarded as the least popular of the four major leagues in the U.S., it has over twice as many Facebook fans as MLB due in large part to its early adoption of social media to connect with fans,” Rykoff says.

MLBAM officials say they’re not focused on the numbers. Instead its dedicated to “offer[ing] the best experience to baseball fans,” says Andrew Patterson, MLBAM’s director of new media. And the league seems to be heading in the right direction. MLB and NHL are the first two leagues to incorporate new Facebook timelines. MLB has added more historic moments to its timeline than the NHL, be they groundbreaking — such as Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier in 1947 — or record-breaking — like Rickey Henderson becoming MLB’s stolen base king in 1991.

Moving from counting stats — like the number of followers — to publicly available rate stats compiled by Twitalyzer, Klout and Peer Index, you begin to get a better look at how MLB is doing:


League* Twitalyzer** Klout Peer Index
MLB 100 76 92
NBA 99 84 92
NFL 100 82 93
NHL 100 77 80

* All data as of Mar. 4, 2012
** Scores are percentiles

The scores across the four leagues remarkably similar, though that comes with the caveat that the validity of objective social media metrics — even according to those who create them — aren’t totally clear.

While publicly available metrics might not do a great job of measuring influence, one thing is certain: social media is very important. According to a recent survey, 81% of people prefer to get their sports news on the internet. Twitter and Facebook (41%) narrowly edged national news websites (40%) as the go-to source for sports news — another indication of the importance that leagues must put on social media.

Facebook and Twitter, in particular, are now hotbeds of opportunity when people are watching television. Anecdotally, that’s even more so during live events. While it’s tough to tie TV ratings to Twitter activity, there’s probably a connection. Last summer, a TV Guide study reported that 50% of Twitter users talked about the show they were currently watching; 35% of Facebook users did the same. The NFL capitalized on this last month when they let players tweet from the sidelines during the Pro Bowl. The decision earned instant buzz and plaudits.

That’s not to say that everything that integrates social media and television is a great idea. During its recent All-Star Saturday night, the NBA altered its popular Slam Dunk contest format: voting was only done by fans who either texted or tweeted. While the league received a reported 3 million votes, both the contest and the format were widely panned. In an ESPN SportsNation poll a day after the event, voters were asked to give the contest a letter grade. Of the 229,622 who voted, only three percent gave it an A; 34% rated it an F — the letter grade that won out. On top of that, the format — which cut into the arena’s excitement because of the dunk-text/tweet delay — was mocked on Twitter, with people writing in votes like Roy Halladay, South Park’s Randy Marsh and LeBron James’ leather sleeves.

All-Star night ended in frustration for many basketball fans — the same frustration that Scott, the Crossing Broad blogger, felt when his videos were taken down. But unlike the fans who immediately took to Twitter to mock the dunk format, Scott didn’t feel like he had a recourse. In fact, he was so bemused that he never bothered to get an answer from YouTube or from Major League Baseball. “It didn’t seem worth the effort,” he says now.

Baseball still hasn’t bent on its opposition to fan-uploaded videos, though the league has made its videos easier to share — a change that we’ll discuss tomorrow. And while the NBA’s attempt to marry social media and live television didn’t go over so well, it opened the door for other events. And professional baseball is best-positioned to get it right: No other league puts on more live events each year. Thanks to some social media successes in 2011, the league has a great deal of momentum that they’ll look to build on this year. Not only did Game 162 of the regular season and Game Six of the World Series create a buzz for baseball, but MLB also successfully experimented with some live-event Twitter integration of their own. We’ll take a look at last season’s successes, and MLB’s other prominent social media efforts, tomorrow.

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Paul Swydan is the managing editor of The Hardball Times and a writer and editor for FanGraphs. He has written for the Boston Globe, ESPN MLB Insider and ESPN the Magazine, among others. Follow him on Twitter @Swydan.

29 Responses to “Socially Awkward to Socially Active: MLB Online”

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  1. Evan says:

    If only the MLB could have had Crossing Broad taken down the world would be a better place.

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  2. Excellent work, Paul. Looking forward to the other installments.

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  3. CSJ says:

    A couple years ago, the MLB twitter account was much better in interacting with the fans. These days, they post links to articles on and “Breaking news” that happened hours or days ago. There’s really no reason to follow it any longer.

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  4. Radie says:

    I think there is an underlying reason for the MLB not exactly opening up to fans… With the obvious exception of taking their money, the MLB couldnt care less about fans. Its almost like they play in SPITE of the fans rather then FOR them.

    Here is a few examples explaining what I mean…

    In the NHL when a player scores it isnt rare to see them skate or jump into the boards, occasionally pointing and celebrating with the fans on the other side of the boards.

    In the NFL, a player scoring a touchdown routinely interacts with the fans, be jumping into the crowd, high-fiving the front row or simply giving some kid the ball.

    In the NBA, the fans are so close that players can routinely interact with them. A few weeks ago Luol Deng even told a fan that he was going to get the ball and hit the game winning shot… WHILE THE PLAY WAS HAPPENING!

    Now lets look at the MLB… If a player even acknowledges the fans… say after a big homerun or something similar, all we would hear about for 2 weeks is how wrong this player was and how much “disrespect” he showed to the other team and to the sport itself.

    I have been a baseball fan my whole life, but as I get older and notice these sort of things, it makes it increasingly hard to be one.

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    • adohaj says:

      This reminds me of when Hank Aaron hit his record HR. That was awesome.

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    • DD says:

      So players don’t interact with fans when tossing them foul balls or 3rd outs on pop ups/fly balls? They don’t tip their caps or take curtain calls?

      MLB is just afraid to “give away” anything for free. They are more money hungry than any other major sport.

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      • Radie says:

        Until fairly recently even throwing the 3rd out into the stands was relatively taboo… I’ll give you the curtain call, but even with that fans have to practically beg the player to do it.

        Tipping the cap? Yeah maybe when they hit an insane milestone or something like that.

        Look at my other examples.. they are about celebrating and enjoying the game WITH the fans.. Your examples illustrated the bare minimum that could be done, or in the case of the curtain call, seems forced and insincere.

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  5. Mike Newman says:

    Interesting stuff Paul,

    Three tidbits about MILB when it comes to social media…. or media in general that has surprised me personally.

    1. If I go back to my online writing start 3+ years ago, live Tweeting velocities and prospect info from games exponentially grew my initial fan base. Since that time, I’ve received media credentials with limitations as to how often a media member can tweet during the game.

    2. A newspaper writer with a readership of 1 has a better than of gaining a credential from a MILB team than I do writing for Fangraphs because it’s t PAPER! At this point, I’m fortunate enough to have credentials to a few parks, but I am still hassled by about half the MILB teams I make requests to.

    3. Video is something I’ve been doing for a couple of seasons now and while there’s really no way to police it at games, I’ve been hassled for shooting video during BP/INF. My best memory is being told I could not take video of Harper during his first pro game and seeing 5,000 camera flashes from fans in the stands every move he made.

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  6. Matt says: may have its share of problems, but it has been well worth the money of its tens of thousands of subscribers.

    I’m not sure what that sentence is trying to say. has been worth it to MLB (tautological)? has been worth it to the paying customers (unsupported — is there some sort of customer satisfaction survey or study of repeat customers)?

    My personal experiences with MLB’s customer service have been nothing but bad. Definitely more of the “we own the game, you are lucky to be able to pay to get a piece of it,” than “we want you to enjoy the game.” is ridiculously overpriced; I can’t even listen to radio feeds on the internet for my team, since I live out of the area. If their goal is to engender bad feelings about the MLB entity, then their efforts are a rousing success!

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    • Evan says:

      I would say is worth the price. The full year is only something like $120 and comes with the At Bat App for android/iphone now. That’s a better price than most cable companies offer for baseball packages and when you can get it on your TV (via device), laptop, and phone it is convenient.

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    • Will says:

      I couldn’t disagree more about MLB.TV. I think it’s an outstanding product, not to mention fairly priced. Regardless of how one feels about baseball’s social media policy, I think most would agree the sport has done a great job monetizing its content. In other words, I’ll take having access to every MLB game for around $100 to anything the other league’s offer. Embedded videos and tweet-ups are nice, but give me content, and that is what MLBAM has done.

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    • AK7007 says:

      The draconian blackout policies on MLB.TV make it barely worth the money – 90% of the time I’m just using it for local radio, and the other 10% is for games that I watch in the background. National games are blacked out as well, and the whole point is that as a cable-free individual, I want to be able to pay for my media piecemeal – but MLB.TV doesn’t really allow me to do that.

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      • Eric C says:

        Just guessing, but I bet the reason for the local blackouts has more to do with local tv contracts than it does with MLB’s policies. Based on how several other companies handle their online presence (HBO, for example) restricting online access to subscribers of their TV networks, my bet is that MLB, or more specifically the teams, do not want to dilute the value of their TV contracts by making it possible to watch games purely online instead of subscribing to cable or satellite.

        We can debate the merits of such a model, but I understand from a local revenue standpoint, even if I don’t like it. I don’t by MLB.TV because I’m most likely not going to watch that many out of market games; I like the At Bat app b/c I can at least listen and/or follow other games on gametracker for a much smaller investment.

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      • Will says:

        Eric is correct. The blackout is intended to protect the local media rights. If MLB.TV had its way, there would be no blackouts because its products would be even more popular. However, the local rights are the lifeblood of the baseball economy, so it would make no sense to lift them. The value of MLB.TV is watching out of town games. If your only intention is to replace your cable company, then it’s not for you.

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      • suicide squeeze says:

        It would be fine if it did only protect local media rights. When I lived in Wisconsin, the only thing that was blacked out was the Brewers, which I could easily watch on TV. Now that I’ve moved, the Tigers and Reds are blacked out for me, and I have no idea where I could watch those on my local TV.

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  7. Will says:

    This is purely an anecdotal observation, but even though MLB may trail the other sports in social media metrics, it seems as if the best and brightest among sports internet properties are focused on baseball (fangraphs is a perfect example). Quite frankly, I’d rather the sport focus on providing content, while leaving the creativity to those who have organic passion for the game.

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  8. CircleChange11 says:

    I’ve siad this before, but MLB is hurting itself when it comes to videos not being on youtube, etc.

    My 10yo son and I have been watching the “10 greatest dunks of Player’s name” on youtube lately, and he’s been introduced to Doc J, Kemp, Vince Carter, Nique, etc.

    During football 2 years ago we watched running back styles and we saw highlight footages of Sweetness, Earl, Sanders, etc.

    When it comes to baseball and we want to look at swing mechanics or I want to show him Edgar Martinez, etc … the videos are rare. It’s ridiculous.

    When fans make “tribute” videos for NHL, NFL, and NBA players they all include video clips. Baseball includes pictures. Yippee.

    Some people have religion, I have baseball. So, my loyalty isn’t going going anywhere. But, at times, it seems ML is intentionally trying to be the most boring thing on the planet.

    Does baseball have DVD entirely consisting of Edgar Martinez at bats? If so, I’ll buy it. If not, then let people put the clips on youtube.

    It just gets old.

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    • Luke M. says:

      Pretty sure MLB has a wealth of Edgar Martinez highlights hosted on its site … get this … for free.

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      • CircleChange11 says:

        Did you look before you made that comment? Or did you just want to say something jaded?

        The highlights of Edgar are [1] his Slam in the 95 ALDS, , [2] His double in the ALDS, [3] Team highlights from 95

        When you search for videos of “Edgar Martinez”, there are more clips of Ichiro breaking Edgar’s Mariner hit record than actually of Edgar Martinez.

        Believe it or not, the thought to search for “Edgar Martinez” in the video did actually occur to me long before posting the above comments.

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  9. Stephen App says:

    Nice work Paul. I’ve always thought MLB was behind the curve with their social media efforts. Also, do you know what the status is of independent franchise’s Twitter accounts currently? Are they fun by the franchises independently or still by MLBAM? I know that when I did a research project on MLB franchises’ Twitter accounts in the Fall, I was struck by how homogeneous they seemed to be.

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  10. wiersNRAF says:

    1. Great read, thought provoking stuff here.
    2. I’m surprised to see NHL above MLB in facebook.
    3. Something that the MLB/pro baseball associations do really well is market their licensed video games, e.g.the million dollars for the first to throw a perfect game in MLB 2K11. Even on my phone, I have 9 Innings Pro Baseball, which is endorsed by the MLBPA (the game isn’t too bad either. For a free baseball game, you could a lot worse).

    I’m really looking forward to the rest of this series.

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  11. Quy says:

    When it comes to Total Like and Followers for official sports team accounts, the NBA is also crushing the other leagues. Four of the top 5 sports teams by total likes and followers are from the NBA:

    Top US Sports Teams

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  12. David Gershman says:

    Hey Paul, interesting stuff. I’m excited for the rest of the posts of this series.

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  13. Eddie says:

    I have loathed MLBAM since they murdered the Cubscast. Go here, and click on the “Note from Lou/Sheps” link if you don’t know what I’m referring to:

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  14. tim burke says:

    The NBA is great at being lax with current-season highlights, etc. But they come down hard on classic-era NBA video. They’re extremely protective of the way they’ve portrayed the NBA’s glory days.

    Their online video package is the worst of all three sports that offer such a thing (the NFL doesn’t, really). Games aired on anything other than a local affiliate are gone forever–you can’t watch them live, sure, but you can’t watch archives either. Same goes for your local team–whereas the NHL lets you watch your local team’s broadcast (or broadcasts on NHLN) 48 hours after the fact, a much more reasonable rule.

    If you want to watch a game that was broadcast on NBA TV, you’d better watch it live on cable TV–even if you have the most expensive NBA League Pass subscription, you won’t ever get to watch it online.

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    • Scott says:

      Simmons has repeatedly mentioned that he goes back and watches NBA games on his iPad that he’s missed, and that’s just with League Pass I believe. I think the NBA is charging ~$170 for that, but you get games on TV, computer, and mobile devices.

      One of the main pros for, at least for me, has been the HD availability. The TV package through cable only has one HD channel, while almost every game online has both broadcasts in HD. Also, Vin.

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  15. pft says:

    I recently purchased NBA.TV so I could follow Linsanity in the country I am in. It is heads and shoulders above MLB.TV. All these years I was blaming my ISP’s bandwidth, and maybe they are part of the problem, but the games stream without interruption and good quality. With MLB.TV I have to try and watch at low bandwidth (depends on the game, the more popular the game, the more troubles I had).

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  16. Fletch says:

    I personally think MLB.TV is a really good product. It seems designed for someone like me. I’m from LA but go to school in Baltimore, and MLB.TV allows me to watch Dodger games just like I’m at home. It’s pretty simple to use and the picture quality is more than decent. Now if the NFL could just come out with a similar package I’d be thrilled.

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