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The Big Picture: Internet baseball fans will have to ante up

Thursday, April 05, 2001

Four more days, then baseball's free ride comes screeching to a halt along the information superhighway.

That's all the longer Major League Baseball will allow transplanted and expatriated fans to listen to game broadcasts over MLB.com at no charge. Once Monday arrives, folks such as way-outta-tahn Pirates fans who used to listen online to Lanny Frattare and the KDKA-AM gang will have to pay between $4.95 and $29.70 to hear the radio simulcast of any major-league game over the Internet.

It's part of the plan by Commissioner Bud Selig and the lords of baseball to maximize any revenue trickle. They formed MLB Advanced Media to run the 30 team Web sites -- they're all homogenized, such as PittsburghPirates.com -- with the mandate that the company turn profitable by 2003. Then RealNetworks of Seattle ponied up $20 million for a three-year contract with Major League Baseball similar to its deal with the NBA, which charges $9.95 to $29.95 per month for a similar service.

For sure, this Internet baseball service is nifty: Besides audio of every game played each day ($4.95 for half a season and $9.95 for a full season through the Major League Baseball site), you could also get pitch-by-pitch video, animated display and real-time, pop-up stats ($29.70 through the RealNetworks site, Real.com).

This flies in the glued-to-the-monitor face of America, where three of every four Internet users are opposed to paying for information on the Web, according to a recent poll.

"It makes me crazy," said Grant Robinson, a Squirrel Hill native and screenwriter living in Los Angeles the past five years. He is one of the estimated 1,000 to 2,000 transplanted baseball fans or radio-signal-challenged office workers who click onto each game each day online. "I think I'm going to have to stand on principle on this one and not listen ... at least for a month.

"You've got to ask: Who are the people listening to baseball on the Internet? They tend to be your fervent fans. Why would you stamp out that spirit? To [Major League Baseball], we're not the faithful fans to be nurtured, we're just more suckers to be fleeced."

The NFL and NHL are proud to say their game audio remains free online, while the NBA charged $29.95 per season for the past four years. To be fair, select NBA games are available gratis over sports.Yahoo.com, the baby birthed by Mt. Lebanon native and Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban as Broadcast.com. You can find both free sites streaming radio broadcasts from college baseball, football and basketball, some golf (such as the Masters through PGATour.com) along with the NFL and NHL. Yahoo previously owned baseball's online-audio rights, until RealNetworks outbid it for this deal.

RealNetworks claims that its subscriber base increased five times, to 175,000, since its January deal with the NBA. Free goes farther. Audiocasts at NFL.com are distributed to roughly 700,000 listeners each regular-season Sunday.

The Internet continues to confound most sports administrators. With the dot.com morgue getting ever more crowded, we'll have to give such pay-for-audio/video-play projects a couple of seasons to shake out before we -- and the administrators -- determine if it works or not.

Look at it this way: Pay the money for the audio package of 4,500 games in French, Spanish and English, and MLB.com will give a $10 coupon to use to purchase a goody at its e-commerce section.

Gee, thanks, Bud.

Also on the national baseball scene, TBS will show live cut-ins from other games during Atlanta Braves telecasts this season.

Mike & Mike (Golic and Greenberg) will broadcast their ESPN Radio nationally syndicated show 6-10 a.m. Monday, opening day for PNC Park, from the North Side. They will be on the air from Castellano's on Federal Street, with local-affiliate WEAE-AM filling the three hours before the game with its lineup of yakkers. Among the scheduled morning-show guests are: Mayor Murphy, Pirates catcher Jason Kendall, Steelers tight end Mark Bruener and Pitt basketball coach Ben Howland.

The Pirates Report's Steve Novotney resumes his "Talkin' Bucco Baseball" show at 9 a.m. Saturday on WEAE.

Strata various

The women's NCAA basketball championship game attracted about half the audience as did the entire men's tournament averaged: 3.34 (Sunday on ESPN) to 6.5 (overall on CBS). The men's final Monday earned CBS a 15.6 rating, which is still only about one-third what the Super Bowl draws.

WBGN-TV from 8 p.m.-midnight Saturday will broadcast the high school girls' all-star game also known as the Eat'N Park Pennsylvania Roundball Classic.

The power of PNC Park: Fox Sports Net Pittsburgh's first broadcast from the new North Side facility Saturday -- the Pirates-Mets exhibition -- attracted an 8.5 rating, which was larger than any Pirates regular-season game last year, including the Three Rivers Stadium finale.

You can reach Chuck Finder at cfinder@post-gazette.com

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