King Kaufman's Sports Daily

The NHL makes a smart deal with Slingbox while MLB fights the future -- and its own fans. Plus: NBA Finals.


Salon Staff
June 12, 2007 8:00PM (UTC)

It's good to see the NHL is out front, leading.

Wait, what? Hey, come back. I'm not drunk or anything.

While Major League Baseball continues its long, drawn-out War on Fans, the NHL, the little league that could -- disappear without too many people noticing, that is -- has done something smart. I'm talking about the NHL's agreement with Sling Media, a company that baseball is fighting.

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Of course baseball's fighting Sling Media. Sling Media is offering a product that could improve baseball fans' experience of watching baseball. That's the prime objective of the War on Fans: to prevent that.

Sling Media makes the Slingbox, a set-top box that allows you to watch your TV through your computer anywhere you have a high-speed Internet connection. So you can take your laptop to the corner cafe -- or to Bangkok, Thailand -- and watch "All My Children" on it.

Or a baseball game.

Not if MLB has its way, though. It has been making noises about suing Sling Media, arguing that the Slingbox can be used to get around baseball's antiquated blackout rules.

If you live in Iowa, let's say, you are considered a local market for -- big breath, now -- the Chicago Cubs and White Sox, Kansas City Royals, Minnesota Twins, Milwaukee Brewers and St. Louis Cardinals. That means those teams' games, and we're talking about the games of 20 percent of all major league teams, are blacked out on the Extra Innings package, in cable deals and on MLB.tv. If you're a White Sox fan, you have to watch them on local stations.

And if none of your local stations carry Sox games? Too bad. Who asked you to be a White Sox fan? is baseball's attitude.

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But if you were a White Sox fan in Des Moines and you had access to a TV in Chicago, or in South Dakota, which is mostly Twins territory, you could subscribe to Extra Innings, hook up a Slingbox and happily watch the Pale Hose on your computer.

Maury Brown sums up the dispute nicely on his Biz of Baseball site: "Is the technology simply redistributing content you have already purchased? Or, is it much the same as the free-file sharing days of Napster, where content distribution breaks with intellectual property rights?"

The answer, of course is: Who cares!

What it is is the future. And the future has a funny way of arriving, whether you fight it or not. The future may not be Sling Media and its Slingbox product specifically. But something like it. This is increasingly how people watch TV: We, the viewers, decide not only what we watch but, thanks TiVo, when we watch it, and now where we watch it too.

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The entertainment industry always, always, always fights the future, tries to force the new technology back in the box because the new technology is going to ruin the entertainment industry. The new technology always wins out sooner or later, and the entertainment industry always finds a way to adapt and survive. And thrive.

Baseball teams once thought that broadcasting the games on the radio would kill attendance. It didn't. They once thought broadcasting home games on TV would kill attendance. It had the opposite effect. I could go on. The music business fighting cassette tapes. The movies fighting videocassettes.

Brown quotes Sling Media chief executive Blake Krikorian at a 2006 conference: "I'm still failing to see how we're hurting them or their brand. We're allowing more people to see more baseball, with all the same commercials, and stay connected to their teams. How is that bad? It's additive to what they're doing."

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No. What baseball's doing is chasing short-term profits. The blackout rules allow MLB to keep rates high on TV deals because they allow for exclusivity. If the consumers of your product see it as you preventing them from consuming it, see your TV policy as part of a larger strategy of attacking fans on every front as they try to enjoy your product, well, hey, that's the cost of doing business.

Or something. Brown wrote last year that when he posted a small blurb in an article on Baseball Prospectus asking people to e-mail him if they'd been "caught in the middle of a blackout dilemma," he got his first reply in 30 seconds, and they came in at a clip of one every five minutes after that. He wrote that they were still coming in a week later, from as far away as Japan, Vietnam and Guam.

The NHL is trying something different. Last week it struck a deal with Sling Media. The agreement will allow Slingbox users to record segments of NHL video and share them on a Web site. According to wire reports, the clips will be searchable and sorted by NHL division and team, and the league will supply clips to the Web site too.

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Good for the NHL. The Slingbox is a hot gadget, and clearly it's no Tamagotchi. It doesn't take a soothsayer to see that "place shifting" isn't some fad. It makes sense as an attractive way to use your television. Good for the NHL for embracing the future, for trying to figure out a way to deal with it, rather than retreating to its cave and trying to fight it with torches and incantations.

The NHL should be doing as much of this sort of thing as it can. As the trailing league among the traditional American Big 4, it should be looking for ways to innovate, to get ahead of the NFL, NBA and Major League Baseball, which, because they're bigger and more successful, can't be as nimble. The NHL should be the cutting skate blade, if you will.

The Sling Media deal's a good start. Given the league's leadership, I doubt it augurs much, but it's at least that. A good start.

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NBA Finals off-day thoughts [PERMALINK]

A few ruminations while waiting to see if the Cleveland Cavaliers can make it a series by beating the San Antonio Spurs in Game 3 of the NBA Finals Tuesday night.

  • If Sasha Pavlovic of the Cavaliers could finish, he'd be a genuinely dangerous offensive player. He has a variety of strong moves that get him to the rim, where he routinely misses. If he didn't, he'd be a worthwhile sixth man. As it is, even though he looks like a player, he's a liability, especially when you consider his nonexistent defense.

  • Larry Hughes of Cleveland, who has a bad foot, should be sitting a lot more, and Daniel Gibson, who's hot and who as a bonus is an actual point guard, should be playing a lot more.

    I find it ridiculous, by the way, that the commentariat has been acting for the last few weeks like Gibson came out of nowhere. Two weeks ago Doug Collins said on TNT that two weeks before that nobody'd ever heard of Daniel Gibson.

    This guy was a hotshot freshman point guard at Texas, for crying out loud. This column called Gibson "a wonder" in March 2005. This column! Talking about college basketball! Not to indulge in false modesty, but come on. If I figure out a college player's any good, he's no secret.

  • Cavs center Zydrunas Ilgauskas looks absolutely overmatched against Tim Duncan. Both of James' two early fouls came when he was trying to help out after Ilgauskas had gotten scorched.

    On the first, Ilgauskas wandered away from Duncan toward the free-throw line as Duncan posted up on the left block. When Duncan took the entry pass from Parker, he didn't even realize he was wide open. James rushed over and bumped him, which wasn't a Phi Beta Kappa foul. On the second, Duncan beat Ilgauskas with a ball fake, and James rushed in and slapped at the ball.

  • Aside from the idea that the Cavs need LeBron James to act like a superstar and use his superior athleticism and skills to attack the basket and score, another argument against James acting as a distributor and "getting his teammates involved" is that he's not very good at it.

    He sometimes makes wonderful passes, but he takes too long to make decisions and his decisions are often bad. When he's in distributing mode, he'll hold the ball for several seconds, assessing the defense, which during those several seconds is adjusting to the possibilities and taking away passing lanes. Especially when it's a great defense, like San Antonio's.

    He reminds me a lot of Chris Webber, who always had the reputation of being a great passer from the high post. I always thought that while Webber sometimes made pretty passes from the high post, he was a terrible passer from there. He took too long pondering things, and then made bad decisions.

    I always believed the Sacramento Kings were at their best when they were going to, not through, Webber, and I believe the same thing about James and the Cavaliers, only more so, because James is a more dominant scorer than Webber was in his prime.

  • ABC commentator Mark Jackson did a little feature about the five greatest power forwards of all time, with Duncan No. 1. I realize Duncan's officially a power forward, and that the Spurs usually have a guy in the lineup with him who they call a center, but for all intents and purposes, Duncan is a center, and he should be evaluated against other centers. He'd still come out pretty high on the list, though not No. 1.

  • You know that announcement they make at the start of every game that you can get the Spanish-language audio by using the SAP button on your TV? Of course Mike Breen reads that in English, but ABC also puts up a graphic saying the same thing. Wouldn't it make sense for that graphic to be in Spanish? ¿No?

    Previous column: Following coaching orthodoxy over the cliff

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