With Film Room, MLB finally embraces benefits of letting fans share highlights: ‘Our philosophy has evolved’
It’s no secret that, for years, MLB took a rather heavy-handed approach to controlling the sharing/distribution of its highlights. Whereas fans of other sports were allowed — encouraged, even — to share highlights on their social media platforms, MLB would go after those who used highlights without consent.
The most notable example happened in April 2018 with @PitchingNinja , a Twitter account owned by Rob Friedman that shows clips of pitches thrown by MLB hurlers that dip and dive and move in jaw-dropping fashion. The wildly popular and quickly growing account — it had nearly 50,000 followers at the time — was shut down by Twitter after MLB filed a Digital Millennium Copyright Act complaint .
Why in the world would MLB want to shut down a Twitter account that was doing nothing but promoting one specific exciting element of its product?
That’s one hell of a good question. The reaction to the Pitching Ninja shutdown was pretty much unanimous in opposition to MLB’s actions, and to MLB’s credit the powers-that-be listened. Friedman’s account was quickly restored, and he signed a deal to work with MLB as an independent contractor. The @PitchingNinja account now has 248k followers and has spun off the @flatgroundapp (44K followers) and @flatgroundbats (25K followers) accounts.
It’s a happy ending to a situation that almost certainly will never happen again.
Why is that? Because now pretty much any fan can do — with MLB’s blessing, encouragement and assistance — pretty much exactly what got Friedman in trouble in 2018.
“Our philosophy has evolved over the course of the last couple of years, and I think we’re at the point now where we believe that making our content available for our fans, particularly our younger fans, in a way that’s easy for them to consume, is really important,” said Chris Marinak, MLB’s chief operations and strategy officer . “We feel like we’re a mainstream entertainment product and we want to make sure that we are mainstream for our fan base. I think once we saw what was happening in regard to the digital media ecosystem, we felt like we had to do what was best for our fans, and that was really what we’ve done in terms of making an adjustment over time.”
MLB officially launched Film Room — a product two years in the making — on Sept. 8, and year-over-year saw an immediate 253 percent increase in users searching MLB.com’s video portal. Film Room allows any user to search the MLB video archives to produce a “reel” of up to five plays and share that reel on any platform — be it social media, via text message, email, whatever.
And the archives are extensive. How extensive?
The vast library of historical moments and highlights already in the database remains, with this addition: Every single pitch over the past three years has its own clip. From the 2020 regular season alone, there are more than 262,000 searchable pitches. For the 2020 postseason, there were nearly 14,500 pitches in the database heading into Game 2 of the World Series. There are now approximately 3.75 million baseball videos for fans to browse.
“It literally gives you the keys to the kitchen, so to speak,” Marinak said. “You can do whatever you want, in terms of accessing historical videos and highlights, and you can literally post it anywhere. You can text it, you can post it on any social channel, and I think what we’ve seen from younger fans, particularly GenZ, is that they have their favorites, in terms of the platforms they like to use, and they’re on those platforms 24 hours a day, basically. And if you’re not working with them and coming to them where they are, you’re going to get left out. And for us, in terms of generating the next generation of fans, it’s important for us to be on those platforms where they are, so they can continue to have the dialogue about baseball in their everyday conversations.”
Each clip is searchable by several options: pitcher, batter, pitch type, pitch outcome, how many runners on base, day/night game, year, inning, how many outs, etc.
So let’s say you wanted to look specifically at home runs hit against the Rays in the 2020 postseason. You’d select the Rays as the pitching team, select all four playoff rounds under game type, then select “home run” as the play outcome. At that point, you can sort them by highest/lowest pitch speed, highest/lowest exit velocity and longest/shortest hit distance. Let’s choose highest exit velocity.
Then, you click “add to reel” for the top five results and the result is a 3 minute, 14 second video. The “share” button gives you options to post directly to Facebook, Twitter, Reddit or Pintrest, with URLs for any other platform and an embed code for web pages. Here’s what I came up with, a process that took less than a minute.
Here’s how it works: For every game, regular and postseason, between 10 and 20 clips are made available immediately via Film Room. Every other pitch is made available between 60 and 90 minutes after the final out.
And MLB is paying attention to what’s being created, of course.
“The biggest thing we’re looking at are the highlight reels that get the most viewership, and the characteristics of those reels, to try and decide if there are other things we should be producing automatically, pushing out there as part of our production process,” Marinak said. “We realize there are a lot of things that people are interested in that we are not producing, and by going through the data, we’ve seen a number of different things. I believe defensive plays are the thing that’s come up the most, things that fans are putting together.”
As baseball learns what users are looking for, updates to the product will continue. For example, there could be additional “every pitch” years added. The number of clips allowed per reel could be expanded up from five. Editing options are possible. “Everything is on the table,” an MLB source said.
There are a few things MLB is still policing, as far as highlights. Fans are free to share, but monetizing the highlights is not allowed. And MLB is still watching out for pirated videos. In previous years, pirated video — clips from feeds that aren’t the main feed, or iPhone video of your TV, etc — were sometimes the only option. Now, though?
“This Film Room product was kind of the last step in our evolution of our philosophy around highlights,” Marinak said. “The reason why it’s the last step is you literally can’t ask for anything else. We gave you everything. It’s all there. There’s no reason to go anywhere else.”
Marinak said MLB didn’t set out to create a product named “Film Room,” but that product was the end result of trying to solve a problem.
“We’ve known for a couple years now that we needed to create a more liberal process around access to our highlights and in-game video,” Marinak said. “… We started two years ago by saying, ‘We have a technology problem that we have to solve. We need to find a way to get access to this video quickly and efficiently, with all the metadata you would expect to have on a clipped piece of video — the hitter, the pitcher, the outcome of the play, all that stuff.’ So we embarked on that two years ago.”
A partnership with Google Cloud, announced on March 3, was key to accelerating the process to the point where it could be launched on Sept. 8.
“We really leveraged their analytics and machine-learning infrastructure to accelerate the technology development process,” Marinak said. “That was kind of the final step. Once we cemented that partnership, using their technology to do a lot of the back-end work that goes into the product.”
After that, it was just a matter of figuring out the marketing and product issues, such as designing the screens/interface, streamlining the posting procedures, branding, etc.
So how does Film Room work, from a technical standpoint?
“We have a number of machine-learning algorithms that watch the video live during the game, and it understands when a play ends, it understands what happened during a play, because we associate all of our tagged data with a play,” Marinak said. “So it will tell you who the pitcher was, who the hitter was, what the outcome of the play was, and then our machine-learning algorithms automatically cut that video and clip it, and assign all that metadata to go with it. Once we perfected all that technology, it was easy to make that library available and to give fans what they’ve been asking for, frankly, which is to give them access to the full library. That’s something we were happy to do this year.”
And judging by the reaction, fans have been happy to consume.