Take Me Online to the Ballgame: MLB.com
It is winter, off-season, for Major League Baseball in America. The New York Yankees have signed Hideki Matsui. The New York Mets did not sign Norihiro Nakamura . A few managers have switched teams: Dusty Baker from San Francisco to Chicago, Lou Pinella from Seattle to Tampa, Art Howe from Oakland to New York. In Cincinnati, demolition crews razed the venerable Riverfront Stadium in 37 seconds. In San Francisco, a judge ordered two men to split the proceeds from the ball Barry Bonds hit in 2001 for his record breaking 73rd home run.
The first pitch of opening day is still weeks away. But for the keepers of Major League Baseball's website-MLB.
Updated up to six times a minute, the site runs surprisingly smoothly. That wasn't always so. At the onset of the 2001 season, the San Francisco Chronicle reported that "hardware glitches caused by heavy traffic stymied users. Data transmissions broke down. Inaccurate stats were posted, including a box score that listed the New York Mets' Robin Ventura with 19 RBIs for the game." Last winter, MLBAM re-engineered the site, and the complaints all but disappeared.
The site's home page provides baseball news, streaming video and audio clips, a place to buy baseball souvenirs, and many links. The site has extensive biographical and statistical information about each player: Where was Seattle Mariners second baseman Bret Boone born? El Cahon, California. How tall is Ichiro Suzuki? 5 feet, 9 inches. You can find team histories, biography information on baseball commissioners, statistics on the annual All-Star Game, historical information and baseball's exhaustive official rules.
Also linked are the sites of the 30 teams that comprise Major League Baseball, where fans can order tickets, read box scores, and get updates. MLBAM designs and operates each of these sites, as well. Click on one at or near game time, and you get the batting order and probable pitchers. During play, every pitch, hit, error, walk, stolen base and out is recorded by an MLB.
Looking at the Internet feed while getting live coverage on radio or television, you realize that the information on the website lags a bit. It is real-time, almost, but not quite. Choti says the delay is not due to a bandwidth bottleneck: data can be displayed on the Web within three seconds of input. "We want clean data," Choti says. "We'd prefer the stringer be slow and get the play right, rather than be quicker and get the play wrong." The raw data is pushed into a massive Oracle database and made available online. Between the statistics and the mass of biographical data, the diagrams and the descriptions, you could be your own announcer and give your own play-by-play account.
The site's statistical minutiae and ability to manipulate the database is especially impressive.
- How does Barry Bonds' post season record compare with fellow (and now ex-) team mate Jeff Kent of the San Francisco Giants?
Bonds hit 18 runs to Kent's 10, and averaged .356 to Kent's .269.
- What was Hideo Nomo's ERA [earned run average] with the Dodgers?
54 in 1995. 5. 05 in 1998. 3. 39 last season.
- How did Arizona Diamondbacks pitcher Randy Johnson do against Baltimore last June 20th?
He allowed one run-a homer-on five hits, walked two and struck out 11.
- Which Yankee scored the most runs off Anaheim pitchers at Yankee Stadium?
Derek Jeeter, with five runs on 12 at bats.
- How did he do in Anaheim?
Three runs on 18 at-bats.
- How did he do overall last May with runners at second?
1 RBI, 3 walks, 2 strikeouts and a stolen base.
"You can do situational splits," says Choti. "How is Barry Bonds on grass versus on Astroturf? How is he against left handers versus right handers? We give you a tool that allows you to slice and dice the data. Your only limitation is your imagination."
After each game, a beat reporter traveling with each of the 30 teams files an account-allowing visitors to read up on any game played that day. The reports, which are not subject to MLB approval, sometimes offer stinging criticism, and the website seems at times to bite the corporate hand that feeds it. For that price, MLB.
The website also offers premium content for a monthly subscription fees. By selling access to live video game feeds and an online version of the press kit, MLB.
Millions of statistics served daily
Major League Baseball Advanced Media is based in Chelsea, New York, 50 miles north of Manhattan. Of MLBAM's 120 staffers, 30 actually run the site-"the same number that have been running it since day one," says Choti.
The site works especially well for broadband connections, perhaps a little too well, considering that most visitors still use dialup. Part of the off-season retooling will be spent "lightening" the website, making it less graphics-intensive but faster to download. Also new this year: added server resources where demand is greatest. "Depending on traffic, our site will begin to adjust itself," says Choti. "If a lot of people want statistics, we'll put more iron towards statistics, and the adjustment will happen dynamically. If a lot people want to follow the day's game, we'll put more servers there. The site will be able to throttle its resources to whatever the demand is at any moment."
Most websites-whether for a company, a publication, or a service like eBay-are beholden to a single management team. One of MLB.
"Thirty clubs ran 30 different websites of varying degrees of quality," recalls Bowman. He describes most as "brochureware"-having no audio, video, statistics, or pictures. A few were better, including "a very thoughtful site by the San Francisco Giants. The theory behind centralization was to create 30 great websites for the fans, reduce the cost of technology by spreading it over 30 clubs, and augment revenue by selling baseball memorabilia."
The proposition seemed simple: if the clubs would give up some control, the quality would rise, the costs would sink, and everyone from fans to the teams would be winners. But for a few teams with established websites, the transition was difficult. "To be honest, when our fans first saw the new standardized site, they went elsewhere," says Bill Schlough, vice president and chief information officer for the San Francisco Giants. "Gradually, we've brought them back. And of course, playing in the World Series helped a lot."
The Giants were among the very first major league clubs to have a Web presence of any sort. Back in 1994, SFGiants.
A year later, SFGiants.
And so the Giants have learned to live within the constraints of templates and have even helped design a few themselves. The club has also leaned on MLBAM to make the re-re-tooled Giants Website more reflective of the team. "We barrage them with new ideas," Schlough says. Among them: the Double Play Ticket Window that enables season ticket holders to sell unused seats, and a splash counter that archives video clips of Barry Bonds homers that land in the San Francisco Bay. The site may no longer be home grown, but it works. Here in the era of the dot.
Sidebar: A conversation with Bob Bowman
When Bob Bowman was recruited to run Major League Baseball Advanced Media and turn 30 team websites into a cohesive whole, he already had plenty of practice. Bowman previously headed ITT Corporation, once one of America's most sprawling conglomerates. He now oversees a staff of 180 people, 120 in Chelsea, New York, the others based in the field.
com has a tough balancing act: it represents baseball as a whole and 30 separate teams. Were club owners reluctant to give up their own vision of how they should appear on the Web?
We've had clubs that, for understandable reasons, think they would do a better job representing their club to their fans. Other clubs are concerned about anything that's centralized - they want to generate local revenue and use it locally. So for the first year, people were more questioning and skeptical. We're now entering the third year, and they've grown more accepting of the idea and looking at how to leverage the site to their advantage.
Was the site designed by consensus or did you sell a vision?
We kept the clubs intimately involved every step of the way. We got input, but we presented what we thought made sense. Clearly we're very different than ESPN [the Disney-owned American sports television]. We try to present a lot of information in a very uniform way so people can quickly find out what's going on in baseball.
How do you work with each team?
They designate people, and we designated people. We have club relation people that manage 10 clubs each, and they work with the clubs every day. It's a very involved and time consuming job.
Do you do anything else besides baseball?
We stream more live sports than anybody, and therefore we are talking to a number of sports entities about doing comparable services for them. We've created a subsidiary, called AM/
Could you talk about the Japanese site?
Our Japanese site is not yet where it needs to be, but that's changing. With the signing of Matsui and other Japanese superstars, Japan is the fastest growing nationality in our sport. That's great for Japan, the US and the world because it points out the truly international flavor of baseball. Last year, we began working with the Japanese company Cyber Agent to produce a much more thoughtful and complete Japanese site. For the 2003 season, you'll see the major league baseball presented in a global way. The site will be written in Japanese by Japanese writers for a Japanese audience. We first cover the clubs where it makes the most sense-such as Seattle, New York Yankees, and the Dodgers. I envision perhaps 10 clubs by the beginning of the season.
You give the journalists who write for MLB.
com freedom to criticize teams, players and coaches. How did that come about?
Clearly the fans understand the difference between promotion and news. We love our industry and we love our game, and we promote it. But we also try to write the news pieces down the middle. At times, clubs are mad at us because we say something they'd rather we had not, but if we don't keep coverage balanced, our fans will not come back. If the manager or a player makes a bonehead play, we say so.
What's the most popular part of the site?
"Game day," which is our live graphical game depiction. It's the penultimate live game application. And it will be even better next year when we start showing the trajectory of the pitch. If you can't be at the game, it's going to be the next best thing.
Do most people view Game day on its own, or do in conjunction with radio and television.
Most people watch it during the day, at work, when they cannot be near a TV. They probably have it as a minimized window, which they pop up every few minutes to see what's going on in the game. [He jokes:] We believe this helps productivity in America. We think it gives people who are working hard at their desks a chance to relax and now and then enjoy baseball.
How successful has streaming video been on the site?
Very successful. Our selling season is in March and April, and even though we launched it after that, we still got hundreds of thousands of viewers. This year, we did very few live games for the playoffs, though most of the season is archived. That will change next year and we expect many subscribers.
What about audio play-by-play.
We have almost 800,000 subscribers to audio.
The National Football League also has a website. How are you different?
Football is appointment viewing. Football grew up as a TV sport and that's how most people watch it. It's shown once a week for three hours, and most Internet traffic for football relates to spreads and games and fantasy. It doesn't relate to video, audio or information because you are watching the game live.
Baseball is very different. Even the biggest fan can't go to every game or watch every game on TV. Baseball is three hours every night, and people just don't have that time every night. The theory behind our Internet site is in relating to that fan-who loves the game, wants to stay in touch with the game, but doesn't always have the time. If you have just three minutes, we're going to get you what you need to know. If you have more time, we will give you more depth.
What's the design strategy to accomplish that?
Our philosophy is that baseball fans love the game of baseball. Some days they have a lot of time, some days not much. Our site should be able to track to whichever mood they are in that day. If your time is short, we'll tell you who is pitching, who is playing, and who is hot. We won't make you hunt.
By the same token, if you're a stat nut or a serious fantasy player, our site has some 275,000 pages. Our database is larger than other league's database, and it's dynamic-you can manipulate it. After a game has been finalized and our stringer's score matched up with the official score, it gets entered into our database. At that point, it has to be inviolate-we cannot give Babe Ruth a 61st home run.