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MLB risks long-term underexposure due to cord cutting

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Cable revenues have made Major League Baseball as rich as it has ever been, but with cable subscriptions decreasing, MLB must assure that it is still able to grow new fans.

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As Alex Crisafulli wrote about yesterday, the price of MLB.tv subscriptions will decrease next season. Additionally, there will be more options available for users, including single-team packages. And in an entertainment landscape in which MLB faces stiff competition from much cheaper alternatives, this appears to be a concession to fans on the fence about purchasing the package(s).

In 2016, live sports are more important than ever for TV networks and cable providers. If I weren't a sports fan, I would probably ditch cable. When I could pay less than $10 a month for Netflix, Hulu Plus, or Amazon Prime and have access to more TV shows and movies than I could possibly consume, why would I pay that amount many times over for the opportunity to occasionally catch the last half hour of Back to the Future Part II after mindlessly flipping channels?

Millions of consumers signed up for cable in the first place because of sports. The story of the impact that rights fees for sports networks had on the price of cable packages is itself a fascinating tale. The end result for the Cardinals, as is similar for every other club, is that Midwesterners who grew up listening to KMOX in order to keep up with their favorite baseball team could now watch nearly all of their games thanks to cable.

But with "cord cutting" increasing in prevalence as the alternatives to cable grow stronger, and the avenue of cultivating young baseball fans of radio lacking the same level of appeal that it did when fewer alternatives existed, baseball risks never enticing future generations of prospective fans.

All sports leagues run this risk, but perhaps none does more than MLB. The NFL owns an entire day of the week for broadcasting games on network TV, and while games are shown on ESPN and NFL Network, one can easily consume large amounts of the action without cable. And while the NBA is not as entrenched on network TV as the NFL, the league is marketed on a more national (and global) scale. MLB is more contingent on fans following one team on a daily basis.

This isn't about me or you. In the immortal words of Helen Lovejoy, "Won't somebody please think of the children?"

Children do not pay for cable. Children use whichever entertainment options their parents provide for them. A child a generation ago would gradually move from Nickelodeon to sports via cable. A generation prior, he or she would have moved from Saturday morning cartoons to the Saturday Major League Baseball Game of the Week via national over-the-air broadcasting.

Why would we expect somebody to gravitate towards baseball if no real connection to the sport exists? Will sporadic games on network TV be enough?

The paradigm of cable providers for the last twenty or so years has been based on the idea that sports fans are relentlessly loyal and will pay arguably irrational amounts of money to follow their teams. And it has worked because those fans existed.

But technology has changed the entertainment landscape. Albums often cost less now than they did a generation ago because previously, there was no competition from Spotify, Pandora, YouTube, illegal downloading, etc. A typical album, which cost $8.98 in 1981 (a very specific story led me to these sample figures), was the 2015 equivalent, according to the Consumer Price Index inflation calculator, of $23.41. Surely, record labels would love to charge that much for an album, but in the end, it is the consumers who dictate how much the labels can charge.

The same basic principles apply to sports leagues. If MLB doesn't recognize that consumers run the show and not the other way around, it runs the risk of irrelevance. Not today, not tomorrow, but in the years to come, with people not yet born or too young to be considered a key demographic. But someday, they will be.

I don't want this to be confused with the "baseball is dying" myth. Major League Baseball is as high quality of a product now as it has ever been. Attendance is at an all-time high, and young stars such as Mike Trout and Bryce Harper have given the league the blueprint to thrive going forward. But by taking a step back from short-term profits and realizing the benefits of growing the sport, be it by airing more games on free TV (or via streaming) or by revising its arcane blackout rules so that fans can watch the local team at a much lower cost, the league can grow even more successful in the future.