Friday, March 29, 2013 updates its MLB At Bat app one last time before the start of the 2013 season Sunday; newspaper special sections fail to appear inside the App Store

Major League Baseball has a bit of a monopoly when it comes to all things digital: audio and video streams of games are their exclusive property so downloading MLB At Bat, or using the website is essential for those of use addicted to the game.

The MLB At Bat app has had its ups and downs. Last year, for instance, I said I had enough of dropped streams, error messages and the like and I cancelled the service. But a late season surge by the Giants – one that would lead to their second World Series win in three years (I love writing that) – convinced me that I couldn't live without the app.

The key to the MLB app has never been its features, does a good job of adding more and more goodies. No, the key has been the ability of to service the app and to maintain its quality. This year the app has generated few complaints about its quality, and that is a good sign. No, the biggest complaint, which is totally understandable in this economy, is the price.

"I've gotten this app for years, not no more. Everything is going up but my paycheck!" writes one reviewer in the App Store.

Other complaints revolve around issues dedicated fans should already understand like blackouts and audio. The app, after all, works best for those unable to directly follow their favorite teams because they have moved out of the market.

If I were a Cubs fan, for instance, I'd have absolutely no reason to pay for the app's premium features (since I live in Chicago) but might pay the one-time $19.99 fee for the scoreboard and stats.

But complaining about the price probably isn't justified in a world where many fans moan because their favorite team lost a player because they wouldn't pay him what the Dodgers or Yankees were offering.**

In any case, here is what you will find in the last app update to be issued by before the start of the season (future updates most likely will involve bug fixes rather than features):

What's New in Version 6.1.0
  • Multi-platform live audio access for At Bat 13 subscribers (portable to Mac/PC with a valid account)
  • Universal support for At Bat 13 subscribers, accessible on iPhone, iPad and other supported smartphones and tablets
  • New video section featuring more highlights and search (iPad)
  • Sortable batting, pitching and fielding statistics (iPad)
  • Re-designed individual team pages (iPhone)
  • Updated news section interface (iPhone)
  • Classic games library featuring more than 60 historic games dating back to 1952 (iPhone and iPad)
  • Re-architected navigations (iPhone and iPad)
  • Additional push notification options (iPhone & iPad)
  • Closed captioning availability for live video (iPhone and iPad

In the spring of 2011, I wrote on the few new apps released by newspapers for the start of the new baseball season. The Boston Herald, for instance, launched a baseball app built by DoApp. My only surprise was that there were not more of these kind of apps being produced.

Now, a couple of years later, the absence of new apps for newspaper special sections no longer is a big surprise. The question, though, is why is this? Have newspapers lost the corporate knowledge of how to produce a profitable special section? Is it about their reluctance to embrace app making? Is it because they have lost the loyalty of the the local ad base?

It's probably all these things, or at least some of them. The one thing I'm positive about is that the atmosphere inside most newspapers companies is much different than when I started out in the business.

In L.A., the start of the baseball season meant the annual Dodgers section. While the editorial team at the Herald Examiner felt they were the ones driving the section, us ad guys felt we were the ones driving the ship. We'd have a giant sales meeting, sometimes with Tommy Lasorda giving the motivational sales speech, the peanut vendors would come in to throw bags of peanuts at us, and the management team would finally give out ridiculous sales goals that we somehow always made.

The sections almost sold themselves: we knew which of our clients were Dodger fans and would automatically buy an ad. The big auto dealer would get the back page - to not give it to them would be suicide. Even some of my real estate clients (new home developers) would sometimes advertise.

Today, print special sections at the start of the season still exist, but they are waning. As for digital media special sections, well, the corporate folks who run newspapers today still aren't there.

I could criticize them for their lack of imagination, but I know that the same relationship we had with our advertisers doesn't exist today. Could a special section tablet app for the Dodgers bring in $250,000 or more in ads today? I doubt it. (The one Dodgers app out there was build by a Chinese app developer trying to take advantage of things by launching paid sports apps. Users think they are a rip-off, and they are.)

Some papers such as the two Chicago dailies have launched sports tablet magazines for their teams. But the Tribune Company has apparently given up on them already, after only one year. Right now the real effort being spent trying to figure out a way to sell off their newspapers – digital special sections will have to wait for another publisher.

** Actually, it might Dodger fans complaining after word came out this afternoon that the Giants have locked up their catcher, Buster Posey, with a long contract – 9 years, $167 million.