Peter Kafka

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Q&A: MLB.com Boss Bob Bowman on Android Owners, Facebook Video and Apple's Subscription Rules

It’s odd to talk about baseball when part of the country is still getting fresh snow. But yesterday was indeed opening day, which makes it a good time to check in with Bob Bowman, who runs Major League Baseball Advanced Media, the digital business jointly owned by all of pro baseball’s teams.

MLB.com boasts one of the most successful subscription businesses in digital media; last year, the company reported 1.5 million subscribers, and expects that number to hit 2 million this year. So it’s worth listening to Bowman’s take on Apple vs. Android, his company’s recent Facebook experiment, and why mobile advertising is taking off.

Peter Kafka: You’ve complained publicly before about the difficulty in supporting multiple flavors of Android for your apps. But this year you’ve expanded the number of Android handsets you’re supporting from 6 to 11. Did you ever consider not working with Android at all?

Bob Bowman The short answer is no. But what we have done is that we don’t support every Android phone. Because at some point, it’s diminishing returns. The Android user typically is less likely to buy, and therefore the ROI on developing for Android is different than it is for Apple.

Why do you think an Android owner behaves differently than an iPhone owner?

The iPhone and iPad user is interested in buying content–that’s one of the reasons they bought the device. The Android buyer is different.

It’s a great phone–make no mistake about it. But if you really want first rate digital content on a device, your first look will probably be an iPhone. And on the tablet, an iPad.

Do you think you’ll be supporting either the BlackBerry Playbook or HP’s WebOS?

We want them to succeed. We don’t want there to be just one company out there. Obviously there are a lot of customers out there that still use the BlackBerry. So if there’s a tablet out there that they are more comfortable with, vs. the iPad, Hallelujah.

I think we will support the Playbook for sure this season. Blackberry’s been a partner of ours for a long time.

Last month you started streaming spring training games, for free, on Facebook. Did that generate any new business for you, and will you keep doing it?

As a conversion tool, it was de minimus. But that didn’t bother us, because we were using it as a promotional vehicle, to get people excited about baseball. And to see how many people would take time out and watch it. We had tens of thousands each day doing it.

[But] we’re not going to do the embeddable player for the regular season. What we found was during the past few weeks, as many people clicked the link (back to the MLB.com site) as clicked the embeddable player.

One might think that the embeddable player would get a lot more clicks. But a lot of people are so used to seeing video on a full screen, with full features, that they ended up back here.

You sell subscriptions internationally, and YouTube has been working on its own international sports deals. Is there a way to work with them?

We’re big fans of Google. And Claude Ruibal, who’s over there at YouTube and YouTube Sports, we’re big fans of his, too. So we’ve initiated some conversations with them. As yet, unfruitful. But in the end, people do deals, not companies, so we’ll see how it goes.

You’re primarily in the subscription business, but you sell ads, too. How’s that going?

Good. We’ll get 15 to 20 percent of our revenue from sponsorships this year. The most pleasant surprise for 2011 is wireless sponsorship. With all the eyeballs going to mobile–45, 50 percent of our eyeballs will be mobile this year–you have to execute advertising. Otherwise all you’ve done is trade a dollar for 70 cents.

Where does the 30 cents go?

Because with wireless subscription products, you’re losing 30 percent margin to Apple.

Ah. So you’re selling via Apple’s new in-app subscription rules. But you’ve decided you can live with them?

We’ve been living by them since March 1st. We don’t view them as a dramatic change from where they’ve been in the past. We’re hopeful that over time, the margin will fall from 30 percent, but we don’t know if it will.

But make no mistake about it, Apple’s been a great partner. Last I checked, they created the iPhone and the iPad.


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