Baseball rides online wave

Streamlined Internet operation sets standard

On the field, Major League Baseball’s 30 clubs are fierce competitors. But in the online world, the league’s clubs work together under the banner of MLB Advanced Media, an independent company that has driven the league’s sites to new levels of economic success and set the online standard for professional sports.

As is usually the case in baseball, the numbers tell the story. MLB’s sites draw between 8 million and 10 million visitors a day in season, with between 50 million and 60 million unique visitors a month. The site sells 30 million tickets online — more than a third of all tickets sold and more tickets than any other league sells regardless of outlet — and is expected to bring in revenues of $450 million in 2008.

The key to the success of the company — usually referred to simply as BAM –lies in its origins, says CEO Bob Bowman. When the MLB owners voted in 2000 to create BAM as a separate company, it had two main objectives: to promote the game of baseball and to make money.

“Those two elements are not incongruous with each other,” Bowman says. “By worrying about profit and being a real site, you actually become a far more trafficked, visited and reliable site than if you were just a homer site.”

The search for profitability has lead BAM aggressively to pursue its revenue streams. E-commerce, including sales and auctions of tickets, clothing and memorabilia, accounts for 40 percent of revenues. Paid content, such as streaming video and archives, accounts for another 40 percent, while advertising and sponsorships make up the rest.

As with all sites, content is king, Bowman says. At the heart of BAM is an independent editorial operation with beat writers assigned to each team, covering each game. With 15 games a day in season, BAM emphasizes high-quality audio and video, as well as innovative features such as its pitch-by-pitch Gameday application.

“We’re a live game site as much as anything,” Bowman says. “We’ll get a million to a million and a half people watching a live game every day.”

“Since MLBAM has turned profitable, I think every other league has looked at their model for a little bit of guidance,” says Larry Cohen, VP of sales for the NBA’s Philadelphia ’76ers. “It’s a model that works and works very well.”

While BAM handles the lion’s share of work, each club shapes custom content for its fans. The Dodgers have added blogs, community features and the Spanish-language site, and recently broke the news of plans to revamp Dodger Stadium via a special online section.

Dodgers ticket sales veep Steve Shiffman calls the creation of BAM “a genius move” that has made it easier and cheaper to sell everything from season tickets to group sales. The Dodgers sell about 65 percent of their individual tickets online and have been a leader in developing online group sales that allow companies or other groups to buy their tickets with a high degree of flexibility for seat choice and price.

Online sales also help sell tickets for special events, allowing the club to notify its opt-in customers of special deals on midweek day games that can move as many as 5,000 additional tickets, Shiffman says.

Bowman says the future calls for improving the quality of content and getting it to people through whatever device they want to see it on. “If you want to build a loyal following, you have to give people the information they want,” he says.

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