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Pushed to app: what's next for baseball after cable?

With the end of cable coming sooner rather than later, it's time to start thinking about what comes next.

The Red Sox lost -- by a lot -- to the Rays this weekend. It didn’t start well, and it didn’t end well. I know this not because I watched, but because I was told. Repeatedly. Not by someone who has some sort of inexplicable need to inform the people around him about their favorite teams are doing in spring training. Nor Willy – my best friend, best man and lifelong Yankee fan -- letting me know my real team will do as bad the fantasy team he duped me into drafting.

Instead, it was my phone. Telling me, as such things are wont to do, seemingly every twist and turn in the drubbing the Sox were taking. I am, as a member of America’s millennial generation, acutely aware of the magic of smart phones. Have been for years. But the sheer relentlessness of MLB’s At Bat app’s updates shocked me.

There is, unfortunately, seemingly no way to turn these off in times of trouble without also turning it off for eternity (or until you switch back on again). I prayed for the ability to tell them "Listen, I get it, not our game". Or, on the other side, "Oh yes, please tell me more about how bad we are beating The "The Angels" Angels of Anaheim. But alas, there were none.

Fundamentally, this is fine. But it definitely brings up odd existential questions our parents have barely encountered and our grandparents would have hit our parents for thinking about: how much do I actually want to actively know about how my favorite teams is doing in a given moment?

ortiz phone
Photo credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

That active part is important. While we all dreamed of a world of flying cars, did you ever think you’d need to seriously contemplate the difference between being able to access information at the touch of my fingers and having this information shouted back at me in predetermined intervals -- or with a series of triggering incidents -- as I’m trying to play around on my phone during this week’s team meeting (JK, boss, I’m checking my ticket queue!)?

Was it ever a thought that I’d get tired of being constantly told where exactly my team was at any given moment in any given game on any given day? Being able to track the misfortunes or triumphs of your team at the tap of a button has fundamentally changed not just the way in which we watch sports, but how we watch them.

With things like MLB At Bat or NBA League Pass on pretty much every device possible, we are stuck not just with a credit card mentality of viewership for our own team -- where the assumption "I’ll just watch this one game when it’s over so I can skip the commercials" can quickly devolve into "How did I miss 36 Red Sox games in a row?" -- but the paradox of choice as it relates to the league at large. How do I decide between watching the best baseball possible (your Kershaw starts, Harper games against a bad pitcher, the Royals) along with my baseball and still have time to be a person?

It’s something I struggled with last season, and will likely do so this year, as the league gets better and better even though I get busier and busier. Quite frankly, it’s as if MLB’s personnel departments don’t recognize that I am no longer unemployed when they draft these players.

These are, obviously, #FirstWorldProblems, but they posit an interesting question for the future of the MLB: Contracts in baseball are enormous. Even middle of the road deals are more money than most of our families will see in a lifetime.

And ultimately, that’s a good thing.

It’s something I struggled with last season, and will likely do so this year, as the league gets better and better even though I get busier and busier.

The reason the players are paid so much is because the teams and league are making enough money to afford the contracts. And, at least for me, I’d rather see the money go into the hand of people who are providing the entertainment than some former Senator or hedge fund manager with enough money for the most expensive hobby in the world.

But this money doesn’t come from gates or concessions any more. It comes from regional sports network (RSN) deals, which have exploded team’s warchests and payrolls in much the same way mortgage bonds did in the world of finance. This money is slightly less fake -- getting people to watch upwards of 120 games of their favorite team is a more sustainable business model than getting people to sign up for loans they can’t afford -- but it’s hard to believe it’s long for this world.

As more and more people cut cords, the financial reality of RSNs -- meaning that they are essentially subsidized by non-sports fans paying for the cable package -- is going to become a nightmare. They will need to wake themselves from the nightmare in order to sustain both the lifestyle to which they’ve grown accustom and not bankrupt themselves or their franchises because of they are leveraged to the gills with contracts for utility outfielders and LOOGYs.

Rather clearly, I don’t know what’s going to come next. If I did, I’d probably not be writing this column. I’d probably be writing some speculative science fiction or working at the executive level for a massively successful media or technology company as their "idea man" (I assume they have one, or Chairman of the Board was lying to me the entire time.).

My guess, if I were to venture one, is exactly what the MLB have dipped their toes into this year: single team subscriptions. These appear, at least according to the press releases, to allow out-of-market fans to watch their team as long as they don’t reside in one of the roughly eight million different occupied territories on the Byzantine Major League Baseball blackout map. It, essentially, allows you to get your team’s stuff without having to pay for all that lousy, uninteresting, other team stuff.

But what this idea presupposes is: what if they didn’t?

What if, instead of only being able to see nationally televised cable games from your local team if you so choose to no longer pay for your local cable cartel’s EXTREME SPORTS PLUS PLUS Package, you could watch everything in the same way that you follow the news or the progress of your town in SimCity BuildIt? Are we really willing to let our entire sports following lives (read: lives) to become an extension of our phones?

It’s a choice we’ve been running towards since the first time someone -- I think it was Mark Cuban -- figured out how to stream video on something other than co-axial cable. And it’s something we will need to decide on, not just in our lifetimes, but likely in the next decade. It won’t stop, because it can’t stop.

I, for one, just hope our App Notifications overlords will let us tell them when we’ve had enough.