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The national pastime's future on the Internet is in limbo after negotiations between Real Networks and MLB (Major League Baseball) Advanced Media broke down.

For the last three years, Real provided a top-notch service to Internet-savvy baseball fans, allowing them to listen to live games or stream them after the fact. The service covered every team, including Spanish language channels for 13 teams. But now MLB has gone in search of a new service provider after Real halted negotiations.

In 2001, Real paid $20 million for three-year rights to the MLB content. As part of that deal, Real bundled the MLB Gameday Audio service with its $9.95 per month SuperPass service. Baseball fans could pay extra for other services such as video streaming or highlights.

But something about the terms of the deal rubbed Real the wrong way. The company said earlier this year that it could see a 2 per cent revenue loss as a result of MLB's exit. Last year, Real pulled in $202 million in total revenue. Clearly, $20 million spread over three more years might not be in Real's best interests.

MLB Advanced Media assures us that it will have a new service up and running by opening day. The company would not say what audio format it will pick or who will deliver the content. A spokesman, however, said the price for the new service should be similar to the old model. Think a few dollars per month.

MLB has a tight relationship with Sun Microsystems and recently made a large hardware purchase. Given the link to Sun, it's hard to imagine Microsoft media files popping up on MLB.com anytime soon. So the Real format will likely stick.

While Real notes the MLB deal only accounts for a fraction of revenue, it may be underestimating the total loss. In our case, MLB.com was the main attraction for SuperPass - the rest of the fluff came along for the ride. Our cancellation order has been placed.

Real still has deals with the NBA and NFL. NBA games arrive for free with SuperPass, but the NFL charges a hefty premium over the SuperPass service for its games. This is pretty amusing given that some NFL teams will not let their games be broadcast on the Internet, which leaves customers with only a fraction of the teams and a thinner wallet.

MLB clearly outpaced the NBA and NFL with quality of service. The MLB.com site is clean and full of extras, if you want them. Last year, we listened to around 150 Houston Astros games, making good use of the small $9.95 per month fee.

We hope MLB is right and the service is fixed in the next couple of months. Wouldn't want to miss it when The Rocket blasts off. ®

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