Test drive: MLB.com says let's pay ball!

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Perhaps the only thing more American than baseball is the drive to make money. So when Major League Baseball announced it would charge fans $9.95 to listen to a season's worth of games on the Internet, I was disappointed. But not greatly surprised.

After using MLB.com's Gameday Audio system for the first few weeks of the 2001 season, I am somewhat disappointed by the spotty quality of radio broadcasts delivered over the Net. But again, I'm not surprised.

I have come to rely on Internet broadcasts of baseball games because I don't live within 100 miles of either of my favorite teams -- the San Diego Padres and the Seattle Mariners. From April to September -- or if I'm lucky, October -- I spend a good part of my day tethered to a PC listening to the exploits of players such as future Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn.

Apparently, there were enough people like me to persuade Major League Baseball to start charging for the Webcasts.

Listening online certainly isn't as satisfying as listening to the radio. The feeds come directly from KOGO-AM (600) in San Diego or KIRO-AM (710) in Seattle and feature the official home-team play-by-play announcers, but when delivered over the Net they frequently contain garbled phrases, short pauses and long silences because of "network congestion."

In the past, these annoyances have been easy to stomach because 1) the streaming audio was better than nothing and 2) it was free. Now that I have to pay for the streams, I expect them to sound more like the real thing.

The price to subscribe to the entire baseball season is only a little more than the cost of a cheap-seat ticket in most stadiums. And it buys access to as many games as a fan can stand to listen to.

Since RealNetworks promised Major League Baseball more than $20 million over three years for Internet broadcasting rights, fans must use the company's RealPlayer software to tune in. MLB.com recommends the free RealPlayer 8 Basic and offers a direct link to the download site at http://www.real.com/player/index.html?src=downloadr.

The 10-megabyte file is simple to install. All the user has to do is click through a series of menus. But pay attention: There are a few boxes that must be unchecked to stay off marketing e-mail lists.

Fans also can purchase packages from RealNetworks that include the company's fancier RealPlayer 8 Plus, which normally costs $29.95. Those who want baseball only can pay $29.70 for the six-month season -- which works out to $4.95 a month. All-around sports nuts can order the RealPlayer GoldPass for $9.95 a month and get basketball games and other content in addition to baseball and RealPlayer 8 Plus.

On opening day, I started out at the San Diego Padres' official site at http://padres.mlb.com and clicked on Game Day Audio. That led me to MLB.com Gameday Audio at http://www.mlb.com/NASApp/mlb/mlb/audio/mlb -- gameday -- audio.jsp, which has a complete listing of each day's games, plus the games for the following day.

The site is simple and straightforward. After scrolling past a giant ad for the new pay service, users will find games sorted into American League and National League, then listed in order of start times. With a single click, listeners can decide whether to listen to the broadcast of the home or visiting team.

I had some trouble with the Gameday Audio site when I was ready to tune in. I clicked on KOGO to listen to the Padre broadcast and got a Radio Popup Window, a 2-by-4-inch square with an MLB logo on top and not much else. Since it didn't seem to do anything, I closed the box and tried again. This time I got an error box with this cryptic message: "Failed to create empty document."

After a couple more tries, my browser froze up entirely. I had to restart my computer to make another attempt.

This time the Radio Popup Window showed buttons for Play, Pause and Stop, just like a slimmed-down RealPlayer. After a 10-second delay, I heard the familiar voices of Padre announcers Jerry Coleman and Ted Leitner. Unfortunately, they were discussing a blown Padre defensive play.

I started this process shortly before 1:05 p.m., when the first pitch was scheduled to be thrown. When the audio stream finally began, there were two outs in the bottom of the first inning. Tuning in should be a quicker process.

At least the sign-up process was quick. All I had to do was type in some basic information -- name, address, e-mail, credit card number -- then select a password and a nickname to identify myself in MLB.com chat rooms. Again, there were several boxes to uncheck to prevent a flood of spam. When I select a game, I sign in by typing my e-mail address and password.

In the weeks since opening day, the site has gotten faster. It usually takes just three clicks to get from the Gameday Audio menu to any broadcast I want. Unfortunately, the site doesn't recognize me automatically, so I have to sign in each time I choose a new broadcast. I visit such sites as Amazon.com and Expedia only about once a month, but they manage to recognize me right away.

Although far from radio quality, the online broadcasts sound better this year than they did last season. The odd hiccups seem to have diminished, and complete drop-offs due to network congestion are much rarer. Still, by the seventh inning of that opening-day game, the Internet broadcast lagged the actual game by half an inning.

Major League Baseball likes to boast that the subscription is practically free because the $9.95 fee comes with a $10 coupon for merchandise in the MLB.com shop. But here's a sampling of what you can get for under $10: a Montreal Expos replica team autographed baseball for $9.95; a New York Mets logo mug for $9.95; an Arizona Diamondbacks shot glass for $4.95; and a Kansas City Royals leather key chain for $7.95.

Some lucky fans might be able to opt out of the MLB.com system. Although individual radio stations are supposed to block their own Webcasts of the games, a few of them still offer the streams for free.

KIRO, for example, was offering Mariner games until the middle of last week, when it abruptly halted its live feeds because of "continuing uncertainty over rights issues relating to the streaming of radio broadcast programming over the Internet." Several stations owned by Clear Channel Communications halted their broadcasts for the same reason, but they all promise to resume their online broadcasts "as quickly as possible."

Starting May 1, MLB.com plans to augment its audio broadcasts with synchronized game statistics and pitch-by-pitch animation.

The transmission problems are still annoying, but then again, for an addict like me, paying $9.95 for a season pass works out to about a nickel for each game I plan to tune in to. I suppose that's cheap enough to put up with sketchy quality.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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