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What if No One Watches?

A big part of covering the wide world of unaffiliated baseball is the knowledge that you are covering the lesser-seen side of baseball. In all honesty, a lot of the time it is the unseen side of baseball. There’s no shame in that really, after all, unaffiliated baseball exists in a world where Major League Baseball has gone out of its way to convince people they are the only professional baseball in existence. The end result of that is that unaffiliated leagues go about their business struggling to find success even at the local level.

That’s why it is so frustrating to see unaffiliated leagues fall on their faces when they try to reach a larger bandwidth of fans. Earlier in the year, I was critical of Eleven Sports Taiwan’s decision to switch a huge chunk of their English language Chinese Professional Baseball League broadcasts to behind a paywall. While Eleven Sports Taiwan eventually switched course they only did so after international interest in the CPBL had virtually cratered. They went back to offering all their English language broadcasts for free, but at that point, only a minuscule amount of international fans were still paying attention so it didn’t really matter.

In America, there are currently three professional leagues in action: the American Association, United Shore Professional Baseball League, and Pecos League. The Pecos has existed behind a paywall for years now, which is about as dumb of a decision as that league could make. But, they have clearly made the decision that an extra $50 a year in profit is better than actually reaching more eyeballs. The USPBL have kept all their streams on YouTube, free for anyone to watch. The league hasn’t seen an uptick in viewership this year, but that’s what makes the decision to stay in front of any paywall the correct one.

Then there is the American Association. For years now they’ve had American Association TV. It existed as a free streaming service of pretty much every game all the way through the final game of the playoffs. Most broadcasts were sloppy, single camera, missed plenty of action, had audio issues, etc (the St. Paul Saints, as usual, were the exception as they produced a very professional multi-camera broadcast). None of those things mattered because it was free professional baseball. I was sure that the American Association would choose to use their free service to cash in on being the biggest professional league playing in America.

Turns out the team owners and executives behind the American Association had different ideas. They switched American Association TV from a free service to one that costs $20 for the entire season. That’s not a terrible number for a season where 6 teams will be playing somewhere around 50-60 game schedules. However, it is a terrible number when someone pays for the package and is treated to the same sloppy, single camera, missing plenty of action, bad audio issues streams that populated the free service. You can’t take a subpar product that was only acceptable because it was free, make it paid, and then expect to see an increase in customers or at the bare minimum happy customers.

No doubt the decision to make American Association TV a paid service was driven by the desire to make money. I fully understand that the unaffiliated leagues exist to make money. That being said, you can’t make money if people don’t know who you are and don’t want to watch your product. Now was the time for the American Association to say, “This is who we are and while our broadcasts may not be the best we are offering them to you for free! Come watch the best baseball currently being played in America!” If that approach even brought in 100 new fans it would have been a worthwhile approach for a league that should be bigger than it is. Instead, they put their content behind a paywall, and people decided they would rather not pay for badly produced broadcasts of a league they know next to nothing about.

The American Association should have taken the time to build up their fanbase more and spent the money to establish the infrastructure needed for better streaming broadcasts. Then in a few years, they could have switched to a paid model and likely seen some windfall from such a decision. Instead, they are playing baseball and outside of the local crowds, no one seems to care. While there are no official subscription numbers for American Association TV there has been zero buzz about the service or the league online. I know that every person I have talked to about the paid service has had spoken from a negative place. Or, worst of all, they reacted as if I was mentioning some foreign concept they had never heard of. This was the American Association’s chance to shine, but as unaffiliated baseball is wont to do, they actually ended up shooting themselves in the foot.

Lead photo courtesy of Unknown – Unknown

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Bill Thompson
Father (human/feline/canine), boyfriend, Paramedic, Socialist, writer Baseball Prospectus, Baseball.FYI, & Beyond the Box Score. Member Internet Baseball Writer's Association of America & Society for American Baseball Research.

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