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How Amazon may change the way we watch Yankees baseball

The YES Network deal comes with a couple mammoth strategic partners

Day Thirteen: The Championships - Wimbledon 2019 Photo by Simon Stacpoole/Offside/Getty Images

Amazon is The Everything Store – what used to be your third option for buying books has become the world’s most powerful retailer, cloud computing enterprise and most sophisticated logistics system. They also boast a fairly robust entertainment platform, with Prime delivering original content, music streaming, and potentially Yankee games in the very near future.

When the Yankees brought the YES Network back into team control this summer, they included a pair of strategic partners in the deal, Amazon and Sinclair Broadcasting. Sinclair’s piece of this deal likely concerns their impressive, if nothing else, scope of American local television channels. Amazon’s a little more interesting, because it represents one of the most aggressive signals of a change in the way we consume professional sports.

The streaming wars have been in force for a while, with multiple providers fighting over eyeballs using original series and recognized intellectual property. Obviously, one of the main advantages of streaming services is the ability to binge and rewatch at will – a huge part of Netflix’s inroads into Canada was the fact the site had all four seasons of Breaking Bad added ahead of the final season, making it easy for fans to catch up ahead of the finale.

Pro sports don’t really work that way, though. People can’t really sit down to binge watch a Yankees-Mariners series, and of the 162 games in an MLB season, most of them aren’t really worth rewatching. One of the only games from this season that I’d make an effort to sit down and revisit is that now-legendary game against the Twins, and even that at four-plus hours is a bigger commitment than most binge sessions.

There’s also the structure of scripted TV shows versus live sports. You lose a lot of intrigue in a game once you know the final result – you may want to see plays again or hear a familiar call, but that’s about it. Great TV shows, meanwhile, are rewatchable to notice hints and signals that weren’t obvious on first viewing, or to see how your interpretation of a character has changed as you’ve aged.

Finally, streaming offers an ad-free experience most of the time. Not only is ad revenue the primary driver of broadcasts, but in some sporting events, an integral part of the value proposition. It’s a cliche, but the commercials in the Super Bowl are as big a happening as the game itself, and sports even lends themselves nicely to ad breaks. Where a scripted show will cut to commercial after a dramatic cliffhanger, baseball games have natural stops every inning where we can either watch a truck commercial, or listen to John Smoltz for two more minutes.

All of the above illustrate why, despite near-record levels of cash on hand, the major streaming platforms haven’t made serious bids on sports broadcast rights. Netflix is perfectly happy to shell out eight figures to 1997’s favorite comedian, but has completely shied away from NFL or NBA streaming. Amazon, meanwhile, looks like it’s about to take a bite out of baseball.

The mechanics of this are still a little up in the air. Younger viewers increasingly don’t care to watch full games, of any sport, and one of the best ways leagues have leveraged that is to allow highlights to be easily shared on social media, or compressed games on YouTube. It’s that latter approach that I see Amazon best able to disrupt, especially in the early goings.

MLB guards pretty closely the number of subscribers to their in-house streaming platform, I couldn’t find a reliable report, but I can promise you it’s less than the 100 million Americans that use Amazon Prime. Having access to a majority of American households, Amazon has a reach that cable can only dream of, since television is a very static kind of experience. I use my phone, laptop and tablet almost exclusively - it’s openly weird to watch television. Condensed games, in the highlight form that the NFL and NBA is prioritizing, on any device, is the quick key to introducing baseball to younger, more dynamic fans.

Amazon’s already doing this with English Premier League games this year, the first full streaming service for topflight European soccer. Obviously the company has huge incentives to publicize their success, but Amazon claims that their biggest spike in Prime subscriptions in more than a decade was directly caused by the new EPL streaming options. They’re already making inroads into sports streaming, and the success or failure of the EPL move will dictate a lot of subsequent decisions in how Amazon approaches baseball.

The last thing that’s most interesting to me in this new front of the streaming war is the emergence of Disney+. Disney as is owns so much content that they can direct the behavior of other streaming platforms, which is one reason why Netflix has tripled down on original content - Disney+ took Star Wars, Marvel and other major IPs back, leaving other sites with holes in their content offering.

Disney, of course, also includes in their portfolio a host of regional sports networks, ESPN and its streaming counterpart, and the residual of BAMTech, probably the most important tech company most people have never heard of. Disney’s the only company with the scale, scope and capital to challenge Amazon on sports streaming, and already have some experience in the marketplace.

Baseball changes on the field all the time, but the way we consume the game tends to change suddenly, with seismic shocks. The switch from radio to local TV, to the cable boom in the 90s, to the proto-streaming wars we’ve seen with, Twitter and YouTube. We’re staring down the biggest shift in baseball content in a generation, and the Yankees are going to be on the cusp of it.