With the first of 13 exclusive MLB games this season airing Thursday, YouTube is aiming for a broadcast that mixes new and old.

By Jacob Feldman
July 18, 2019

Airing its first exclusive MLB game Thursday, YouTube is aiming for a broadcast that comes across as new yet familiar.

Diehard Phillies and Dodgers fans will be tuning in at 12:35 p.m. eastern expecting to watch baseball the way they’re used to. To please them, YouTube has brought in Philadelphia analyst Ben Davis and LA commentator Orel Hershisher, along with MLB Network play-by-play announcer ​Scott Braun (John Kruk was scheduled to call the game but reportedly called in sick). Viewers won’t be asked to sign-in before streaming and the overall production will look a lot like a typical MLB Network affair.

But of course, MLB is looking for more than a traditional sports network experience out of its deal with the online video giant. YouTube is expected to draw in additional fans, likely younger, more casual, and more global than what the game would get otherwise. It can target potential watchers based on its trove of data, it will add YouTube personalities to the broadcast via an invite-only live chat thread, and it will replace commercials with YouTube-created content.

“We really hope we can thread the needle,” said YouTube’s head of sports partnerships, Tim Katz, “between bringing in a new audience while also making sure it’s not disruptive or unappealing to the core existing baseball audience.” The goal is for baseball fans to walk away feeling like they’d seen a high quality baseball broadcast, with YouTube natives feeling like they enjoyed high quality YouTube content. Thursday’s show, the first of 13 exclusives this season, then, is baseball outreach wrapped in a broadcasting experiment inside a business deal. And it’s about time.

YouTube has now partnered with MLB for a number of years, hosting an array of highlights and sponsoring playoff games. Other leagues have also grown their presence on the platform, each competing for the next generation’s attention. Meanwhile, YouTube has bolstered its live feed chops, from its record-breaking 2012 skydiving stream to its more recent Coachella streams. Along the way, several of its competitors have already jumped into major sports streaming, from Twitter and now Amazon’s Thursday Night Football deals to Facebook’s exclusive MLB offerings last season.

This year, Facebook only has six nonexclusive games, though the social network has other partnerships with the league, including official fan groups for each team (MLB being the only major U.S. sports league with that setup).

YouTube has largely carried over the same broadcast crew from those games. Social media reporter Alexa Datt returns, for instance, already aware of how to blend a typical field reporter’s responsibilities with the more lighthearted elements she’ll be involved with once again Thursday.

For his part, Braun has experience working with new sets of analysts, juggling the digital and analog components of calling a game online, and speaking to two sets of audiences at once. “I think MLB going to where the fans are is a big key,” Braun said. “My nephew, he’s three, and he’s on a tablet flipping through YouTube better than anyone else in the family…. For him to be able to on his own flip on the MLB game on Thursday, that part for me is really cool.”

Thursday’s game will also be available on YouTube TV, where subscribers will have access to that product’s Stats and Key Plays views. Katz said to expect minor tweaks as the season progresses, with bigger changes possibly coming down the road as the company figures out how it can best serve users and leagues. “It’s about learning and growing,” he said. “It’s good for us to dip our toe in the water.”

Speaking of, there’s a 60% chance of rain in Philadelphia. As YouTube is about to learn, surprises like weather delays are just part of life in the big leagues.

Here are some of the YouTube accounts that will be featured in the game’s live chat window…

• The Fumble (1,459,000 subscribers)
• Mighty Goat (410,671)
• Sports Gaming Universe (227,000)
• Benny No (152,000)
• Chat Sports (128,000)
• GiraffeNeckMarc (92,000)
• Foolish Baseball (45,000)
• Dawson Wright (36,000)
• TwinGaming (32,000)
• TheAntOrtiz (13,000)

SIGHTLINES

• ESPN founder Bill Rasmussen is currently dealing with Parkinson’s disease, he announced Monday. He was diagnosed in 2014.

• LeBron James and Maverick Carter’s Uninterrupted has partnered with FOX Sports on a Hunter Pence documentary debuting Saturday. In other Uninterrupted news, Space Jam 2 has a new director.

• A new survey found Peyton Manning is America’s favorite sports media personality, followed by Charles Barkley and Al Michaels.

• Brian Sieman is moving from the Clippers radio crew to become the team’s new television voice.

•  Comcast Has a $45 Billion Cricket Problem.

•  Front Office Sports spoke with Mike Greenberg about Get Up!’s evolution.

•  Coming soon to ESPN+, an 18-part series on Les Miles and Kansas football. Time to update the IMDb page.

•  Last Chance U returns for a fourth season Friday. Meanwhile, a Last Chance U-inspired scripted series is reportedly in development.

• No one knows how it will end, but for now I’m enjoying how nonplussed UK newsrooms seem to be about The Athletic’s invasion.

• ESPN picked up an Emmy nomination this week for its 30 for 30 series. Hulu’s skateboarding documentary Minding the Gap (which you really should see) was also among the nominees.

THANK YOU, INTERNET...

...for every last bit of Woody Harrelson content, featuring yet another underappreciated Mark Rylance performance.

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