The first rule about Major League Baseball, apparently, is you don't talk about Major League Baseball. At least not unless you have the express written permission of Major League Baseball.
Okay, not exactly. People are still free to talk about baseball whenever they want to, but that's the message that a lot of team-centric writers are getting today in the wake of the news that iTunes has dropped their podcasts at the request of the commissioner's office. Major League Baseball is not interested in being talked about. Or, at least, does not want to be talked about with the help of iTunes, the largest podcast distribution hub on the Internet. According to one podcaster, 90-95 percent of his downloads come from iTunes.
MLB Podcast issue
MLB Podcast issue
There is a lot of confusion here, and not a lot of details. The initial actions from iTunes made it seems as though MLB had demanded that Apple take down a select group of team-centric podcasts that cover the Twins, Orioles, Rangers, Cubs, Yankees, and Mets for some kind of nebulous violation of intellectual property. Later in the day, MLB Advanced Media released a statement that denied any responsibility for the culling, saying:
"As we have done in the past, yesterday we notified Apple about certain podcasts on the iTunes Store whose titles and/or thumbnails include infringing uses of trademarks of Major League Baseball and certain Clubs. And, as we have done in the past, we asked Apple to have these trademarks removed from the podcast titles and thumbnails. Although we did not ask for or seek to have any podcast removed from the Store, it has come to our attention that Apple removed them. Given our many years of experience in notifying Apple about trademark issues on the Store, we trust that removing the podcasts was an oversight, and ask that you please look into this matter as soon as possible."
Whether MLB ordered the removal of these podcasts, or the whole thing is the fault of some over-eager Apple employee, it's easy to see what the problem is here: a profound lack of communication.
For most of the day, podcasters sat in the dark, unsure what they had done to earn MLB and iTunes' wrath, and how to fix the problem. Aaron Gleeman of NBC Sports and the popular Twins podcast Gleeman and the Geek, described the situation thusly:
OK, so MLB won't get back to us and iTunes won't get back to us. Not sure what to do other than make a big stink about it. So let's do that.— Aaron Gleeman (@AaronGleeman) May 7, 2014
Had MLB, its clubs, or Apple bothered to contact the creators of those shows directly and explained the issue, it's almost certain that the headaches could have been entirely avoided. Instead, it resulted in unnecessary bad press for the league, which looked like a bully attacking its biggest supporters through a third party.
Podcasts are essentially free advertising for MLB clubs, produced by fans for fans and typically asking for no compensation from the listeners, supporting the obsessive fandom of the game's biggest rooters. Many of the podcasts affected have cordial relationships with their home club's P.R. departments. It's unfathomable that this couldn't have been solved with an email or a phone call. Indeed, by taking the less personal approach, MLB came across as inhuman.
Moreover, it's not like the league has earned the benefit of the doubt when it comes to customer service. It has been aggressive in its attempts to control how fans consume its product. In 2008, it sued companies that ran fantasy leagues, saying the statistics generated by the game -- statistics that ran for free in newspaper boxscores around the country -- were somehow the league's property. It's draconian and seemingly arbitrary blackout restrictions for MLB.tv leave huge swaths of the country unable to see multiple games on any given night, and it's done absolutely nothing about it. It's not clear where on the range of aggressiveness they've come in on podcasts -- it could be anywhere between "please stop" and "we'll sue you for more than you're worth" -- but the past abuse of their fans makes it difficult to feel sympathy for them when they're accused of coming down hard on yet another way to enjoy the game.
It's what they do. It's what they're good at. Encouraging their biggest fans by treating with respect? Not so much, as they've proven yet again.