On a sunny block of Broadway in downtown Manhattan sits a highly unusual building, one you can’t find in any other city: the MLB Fan Cave. A glassy enclosure complete with leather couches, a big plastic slide, and an artillery of TVs tuned to the MLB Network, it looks like the best sports bar in the city.
Except for one thing: It’s empty. Or nearly so—a lone security guard sits behind a desk in an inconspicuous corner. The entry doors are locked. The couches are much too pristine to have hosted beers or wings recently; the slide appears un-slid-down.
The Fan Cave has been around since 2011, when it was intended, according to MLB’s executive vice president of business Tim Brosnan, to be the site of an interactive fan experience that was “something like Big Brother,” with a few lucky fans occupying it for the summer, watching wall-to-wall baseball and tweeting about it. In subsequent seasons, it was repurposed, first as a concert venue, then the home of the one-season MTV2 show Off the Bat from the MLB Fan Cave, which featured offbeat videos starring the likes of Bronson Arroyo, Miguel Cabrera, and David Ortiz. It became the source of some agreeable pranks, music videos, and at least one telenovela.
This past February, just two weeks into the tenure of newly elected MLB commissioner Rob Manfred, Sports Business Journal reported that the Fan Cave was closing its doors. But MLB’s lease on the property doesn’t expire for another few years, which has led to the strange state of affairs now in evidence to nearby pedestrians. MLB professed an interest in hosting concerts and special events, but I’ve been unable to locate a calendar of them. When I visited the Fan Cave to inquire, the security guard there offered no information, and directed me to speak to MLB for further information.
There is a powerful temptation to see the empty Fan Cave as a metaphor. Baseball has been criticized for being slow to adopt instant replay and for its insistence on using human umpires. It’s been insinuated that the sport has a problem selling itself to younger demographics—which may be why the Fan Cave partnered with MTV in the first place. In this version of the story, it is noted that World Series ratings are down, the NFL is king, and the NBA is on the rise.
In the wake of an epic Super Bowl this past February and an entertaining NBA Finals in June, it’s easy to find this story seductive. Yet the truth is more complicated; the Fan Cave now looks like a dated vision of the future, but Major League Baseball has long since moved past it. In fact, they are setting the technological standard for all sports leagues, including the NBA, NFL, and any other organization you can think of.
In the realm of technology, Major League Baseball is far ahead of the curve, and has been for years; it’s so far ahead that many members of the baseball media, still busy carping about the merits of the “human element” and whether steroid users belong in the Hall of Fame, have failed to notice.
For one thing, millennials don’t watch TV, so TV ratings aren’t a useful index of whether a sport is popular among them. Robert Bowman, CEO of baseball’s digital media lab, MLB Advanced Media, suggested that this is an old paradigm.
“People focus on live TV a lot. But 85, 90 percent of our fans are not watching a live game,” said Bowman. “They’re watching stats, they’re watching live look-ins, they’re watching real time highlights, they’re watching postgame highlights, they’re just watching a statistical stream of what pitch that was. While live games are the be-all end-all on TV—that’s all there is—on digital media it’s a lot of different things.”
Once you focus on digital media, it becomes apparent how successful the league has been. For years, MLB Advanced Media has offered fans instantly distributed highlights of the most athletic plays and unexpected moments; quantified assessments of every pitch and batted ball; reporters and fans chiming in from every game with on-field observations; customizable views of favorite teams, stats, and players.
Even the now-familiar complaint that baseball games take too long becomes less of a problem when you focus on these digital efforts. Sure, game length is still an issue for fans in the stadium, and baseball has endeavored to address that. But for fans who aren’t at the game, this is a TV watcher’s complaint. If you’re a digital media user, it hardly matters: you’re monitoring the stats and highlights as you text and play video games and home-brew jars of sun tea.
Bowman confirmed that the Fan Cave won’t be used any longer, but he now views it as part of an old way of thinking about selling baseball.
“I think the underlying principle of Fan Cave was we needed music or something else to make people love baseball,” Bowman explained. “And I think our philosophy [now] is baseball will help people love baseball. Just by making sure people can see these great young players play—what they do for their teams—we think that will really help.”
Thinking back on those Fan Cave events, this comment rings true. With the likes of Bryce Harper, Mike Trout, Jose Altuve, and Xander Bogaerts, baseball is in the midst of what Bowman calls a “youth movement that this game hasn’t seen in generations.” Do we want to watch Harper goof off as an undercover reporter? Or do we want to watch instant highlights of him mashing dingers with a patriotic bat? I’ll take the latter.
Sadly, we won’t see Harper do his thing during Monday’s All-Star Game Home Run Derby, but Bowman expressed excitement about what we will see—a new, timed format that leaves behind baseball’s traditional clock-free rubric and lends itself to YouTube; and a live display of the impressive Statcast, the baseball-tracking software unveiled in 2015, which generates 7 terabytes of physical data per game on everything from the distance an outfielder travels to make a catch, to the speed of a ball off the bat.
It is hard to say whether the Home Run Derby or the All-Star Game itself will be good television. There will almost surely be a few good moon shots during the derby and some notable moments during the main event. Most importantly, fans will have access to all of it any way they want to get it.