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When talk of highly profitable digital businesses comes up these days, 100-year-old sports companies don't normally get mentioned. But there is at least one sports institution that has made a killing in digital: Major League Baseball.

Back in 2000, the MLB solicited $1 million from each team in the league to jumpstart its foray into digital. Two and a half years later, they no longer needed that help. Today Major League Baseball Advanced Media brings in $500 million annually. How did they do it? By putting as much content on as many screens as possible.

Speaking at Startup 2010 in New York, MLBAM's CEO Bob Bowman made the company's directive clear. From the beginning, he wanted to put baseball content where people are, when they want it. 

MLB.com was created in 2000, with that simple goal. According to Bowman, he wanted to "make sure baseball is on every device that takes a battery or plug."

Professional sports leagues have a content issue that not many media companies share. They have more programming than viewers can possibly watch on television. That's why Bowman wanted to make it as easy as possible for viewers to find what they want, everywhere they could want it. He says:

"People aren't going to go out of their way to watch baseball if it's on seven days a week. We have to be wherever you are, rather than bring you to where we are. Your life is too complicated. We have to make it easy for you."

And unlike print media companies, MLB hasn't had a monetization problem. The company brings in revenue through a combination of subscriptions, advertising and sponsorships. But its purpose has remained constant over the last ten years. Says Bowman:

"We're not smart enough to say, this is smart, this isn't."

Instead, MLB has put its content on as many platforms as it can find. According to Bowman, Apple's proliferation of new mobile products is making this increasingly difficult. But MLB is on all of them. And mobile is making baseball a lot of money. Says Bowman:

"I don't think people want content on a big screen. Screens are getting smaller. And they're getting personal."

Bowman notes that his children often watch video in group settings, but rather than sit around one screen, everyone has their own. That habit is part of the reason that wireless has come to represent 20% of the company's traffic.

Thanks to MLB.com, a Milwaukee Brewers fan can have the same experience as a Yankees fan. Says Bowman:

"We've leveled the fan experience."

Bowman says that at MLB he focuses on "taking the real and making it possible for someone far away to enjoy it."

Of course, MLB brings in more money per user from New Yorkers than Milwaukee residents. That's because New Yorkers typically demand more media, more often. "They like to have everything, they'd like to have it now."

With all of the moves that MLB has made in digital, it's easy to think of one group that may be pissed off: cable companies. But Bowman says he hasn't set up the MLB as a cable antagonist:

"We're working with the cable companiess. We want to be partners with these folks. We're not trying to cut them out at all."

In fact, he sees the cable subscription model, allbeit with increasing personalization, as the wave of the future.

"I actually think it's going to move to be less a la carte, and more of a smorgasbord style."

Meghan Keane

Published 21 May, 2010 by Meghan Keane

Based in New York, Meghan Keane is US Editor of Econsultancy. You can follow her on Twitter: @keanesian.

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