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Baseball Fans Shut Out Online

To the chagrin of baseball fans accustomed to hearing games on the Web for free, major league baseball started charging for online audio feeds for the first time this season.

But some fans who capitulated and coughed up $9.95 for a season pass and tuned in to hear their team play over the weekend were denied access to the broadcast. It’s enough to make a Cub fan commit Harry Caray.

For fans living far away from their team, the Internet has been a blessing – at least until now. Before this subscription service was launched last month in partnership with RealNetworks, radio webcasts were available for free on Yahoo or from terrestrial radio stations’ websites.

John Kennedy, a loyal Yankee fan who lives in Raleigh, North Carolina, doesn’t have a problem shelling out the ten bucks for the season to hear his team – if the service actually worked.

Kennedy said MLB.com isn’t holding up its end of the bargain as he couldn’t get access to the Yankees game webcast for three consecutive days.

Kennedy was one of several fans who paid for an account, received a confirmation e-mail and began listening to games, but were shut out starting on Friday.

MLB’s Gallagher could provide no confirmation or explanation of these reports.

“I used to drive around with the car radio and find spots where I could get WABC from New York and hear the games,” wrote Kennedy in an e-mail. “Then, with the Internet, I was able to get WABC and listen to all games…. But this year, connecting through MLB has been sketchy at best.”

Jim Gallagher, a spokesman for MLB, said his office received about a dozen complaints from fans, such as Kennedy, having trouble accessing the webcasts. But he blamed the problem on users trying to log on without an account.

“On Friday we cut off a number of people who weren’t subscribers,” Gallagher said. “Our guess is that’s the problem. Some people may think they have subscribed, but they haven’t.”

Although it has been collecting money from subscribers for several weeks, the service wasn’t actually limiting access to subscribers only until Friday.

Persistence paid off for Kennedy. After getting denied his Yankees all weekend, on Monday he finally got through after several more attempts. But he still wasn’t satisfied.

That’s because MLB only owns the rights to the broadcast of the game itself, so the feed cuts off as soon as local radio stations return to their own programming, said RealNetworks spokeswoman Lisa Amore.

The multimedia company paid MLB $20 million for the rights to sell the baseball broadcasts to its RealPlayer subscribers. If users go through RealNetworks, they can get games and other premium content for $4.95 per month – a bit more than MLB charges. But if you shell out 30 bucks for a RealPlayer 8 – the latest full version of the popular media player – the games come along as a bonus.

Although RealNetworks would not say how many subscribers have signed up so far, the company is very happy with the agreement. “It’s been very successful. From our side, no problems whatsoever,” Amore said. While acknowledging there have been a few glitches, Gallagher thinks the service is a hit, too. The webcast service is just one part of the redesign of MLB.com, which includes new websites for each team run by the league, instead of the independent sites formerly run by the teams themselves.

“There are a lot of moving parts,” Gallagher said. “We re-launched 31 new sites. Overall, we’re pleased with the way things have gone.”

Besides the webcast problems, the new sites have had some other problems as well. The message boards on several team sites have been on the fritz. Those visiting some fan forums are greeted with a message explaining that some users are having trouble signing in.

“We are looking to have the message boards up and running smoothly in the next week,” reads the message at the Cubs forum.

The message boards themselves contain other gripes. One post on the Cubs’ site described discontent with the centrally controlled team site.

“The picture when you come to the website isn’t of the game that took place” the message reads. “It says ‘Sosa hit a three-run homer’… but did you notice that they were wearing their home uniforms?… They just seem to cycle 5 or so pictures.”

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