Live Streaming Is a Whole New Ball Game

Boston Red Sox Vs. New York Yankees At Fenway Park
Barry Chin/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

Major League Baseball's new season just got under way on Monday, and it already has its first steamy controversial topic. It has nothing to do with how the Yankees will hold up without Derek Jeter or if the Giants can repeat as World Series champs. The real contest is taking place in the stands, where more and more people are recording and live-streaming the experience.

The Wall Street Journal turned heads on opening day with an article suggesting that the league might ban fans from broadcasting live video during the game. The original incendiary headline -- "MLB Will Bench Baseball Fans Caught Streaming Games" -- and some savory quotes from league and team executives made it seem as if that was the way that the 2015 season would play out.

"Fans don't have the right to emulate the game," Bob Bowman, Major League Baseball's president of business and media, is quoted as telling the Journal. "Live streaming doesn't change that."

Damage Control

Bowman leaped into damage control a day later, going on CNBC to point out that the story was "flat out wrong." However, even in that interview Bowman seems to be dodging the question of someone live-streaming an entire game. "We don't expect fans to stream the game. That's absurd."

"No fan goes to our game with the thought of streaming live a half an inning of a game," he would go on to say.

Baseball tolerates and encourages fans to take pictures and even short video clips while in the stadium. It's a smart way to get fans to feel closer to the game. It's also a great tool for viral marketing as they share their shots with friends online. The league knows this, but what happens when someone live-streams an inning or an entire game? It's going to happen. It might even be happening right now.

Stealing Home

The league's official policy is clear: Games are licensed content and live video is prohibited. Even credentialed media are limited to no more than two minutes of live in-game video. The question here is a matter of if and how the league will enforce the rule.

It's a thorny issue. No one is going to change the lyrics of "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" -- replacing "just buy me some peanuts and Cracker Jack" with "just whip out your GoPros and selfie sticks" -- but the booming popularity of live-streaming apps and the improving quality of portable cameras will be an issue this season.

Let's talk about the hardware first. Smartphone makers find themselves trying to outdo one another by improving the quality of their cameras with every passing year. There's also the explosive popularity of wearable cameras. GoPro (GPRO) sold nearly $1.4 billion worth of its high-end Hero cameras last year, 41 percent ahead of the prior year. Apple (AAPL) sold nearly 75 million iPhones during the holiday quarter. Baseball fans are buying these devices, and they're bringing them to the game.

The scarier part of the equation comes from the rapid ascent of live-streaming apps. This used to be a thin niche for folks who call themselves lifecasters. Justin.TV was a pioneer website that let folks broadcast their daily lives through wearable cameras before it shut down in 2014 after seven years of operation. Now that baton has been passed on to streaming apps, with Meerkat and Twitter's (TWTR) Periscope leading the way. The apps make it easier to use mobile phones to stream and watch live broadcasts. They are shooting up the ranks in app store popularity, and even celebrities are starting to take notice, the way that they followed early adopters onto Twitter, Instagram, and Vine.

It's a perfect storm, and Major League Baseball has to be wondering about the rain delay. There will be bandwidth concerns at the stadium level and piracy concerns at the league level.

Extra Innings

Pro leagues can be hypocrites. I've had Miami Dolphins season tickets since 1987, and I started a YouTube channel to publish clips of player interactions with fans from my seats by the tunnel. The National Football League used my video of Detroit Lions center Dominic Raiola making an obscene gesture to fans four seasons ago as the basis for fining him $100,000. The league didn't offer me any whistleblower money for my video or protection from retaliation for filming it in light of the fine it collected. Instead the league came back a few months later and asked YouTube to remove a handful of my channel's videos. Thanks a lot, NFL.

There's a love-hate relationship between pro sports and camera-wielding fans, and it's probably about to get a lot worse.

It's a very fluid situation, as music festivals, Broadway stages, multiplexes, museums and even theme parks begin to consider bans on selfie sticks and video recording. Will America's greatest pastime get it right in the future? Will it be able to balance the benefits of social and viral marketing with the concerns of proprietary content? It's a whole new ball game.

Motley Fool contributor Rick Munarriz has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends Apple, GoPro, and Twitter. The Motley Fool owns shares of Apple and Twitter. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. Check out The Motley Fool's free report on one great stock to buy for 2015 and beyond.