Announced to much fanfare at Apple’s annual spring event last month, the company’s first foray into live sports programming on its streaming video service, dubbed Friday Night Baseball, premiered last Friday evening. Apple’s deal with Major League Baseball makes Apple TV+ the exclusive home of two MLB games each week throughout the season. The slate began with a doubleheader of a Mets-Nationals matchup from Washington DC, followed by the Astros and Angels from Anaheim.
Apple shared details via press release last week about the games’ production, including the diversity of the broadcast teams. Notably, Baltimore Orioles’ broadcaster Melanie Newman became only the second woman to handle play-by-play duties for a nationally telecasted game when she called Mets-Nationals. In addition, Lauren Gardner, a frequent face on MLB Network (and NHL Network), is hosting the pre- and postgame shows for Friday Night Baseball. Besides games, daily highlights, and other in-season content, the TV app features a slew of baseball-centric content in the Sports section, including catalog classic MLB-backed shows like This Week in Baseball and World Series Films.
As a diehard baseball junkie since early childhood, it was exciting—not to mention journalistically relevant—for me to tune into Friday Night Baseball. I turned on the early game, the NL East matchup between the Mets and Nationals, extremely curious about the accessibility of the broadcast. However esoteric to most casual viewers, the reality is the technical aspects of any sporting event’s TV presentation is an important consideration for Blind or low vision people. It makes perfect sense—a television is nothing more than a giant screen on which you consume content, and like an iPhone or iPad or iMac or even Apple Watch, the “user interface” matters. Text matters. Colors matter. Contrast matters. What fun is watching a baseball game if you can’t see the score or what inning it is or how many outs there are or how many runners are on? For those with typical eyesight (or close to it), they may not think twice about this. On the other hand, those who are visually impaired may find assessing graphics packages as essential to the experience as it is nerdy. I certainly fit that demographic, so I paid close attention to how Apple and MLB decided to literally present Friday Night Baseball as ace hurler Max Scherzer made his much-ballyhooed debut in a Mets uniform.
Overall, initial impressions were positive one game in.
Although MLB Network is producing games in partnership with Apple, it’s immediately noticeable who gets top billing in this joint venture. Everything, from the studio down to the flags on the microphones, use Apple’s homegrown San Francisco font. Initially created for watchOS, it’s a beautiful typeface that’s distinctively Apple in its precision. What makes it so appealing from an accessibility perspective lies in its legibility and clarity. Even at smaller sizes, text and digits are clear and crisp; I found myself having no issues with reading the score or how many outs there were or who was at the plate, for example. San Francisco is pristinely legible—to wit, it’s awfully difficult to mistake a “5” for an “S,” which can be harder to distinguish with other fonts.
Commensurate with the text itself is the contrast. For the main info box, Apple has opted for a highly on-brand look (for TV+) of white text set against a black background. As one would suspect, the contrast here is impeccable and lends itself well to the aforementioned legibility factor. Apple has chosen similar designs for other overlays, including the current hitter and any pertinent statistical callouts. They work well too, with one caveat lurking in the lower right-hand corner of the screen.
In a move that should tickle statistics professors the world over, Apple has dedicated said right-hand corner to what the company describes as “innovative new probabilities-based forecasts of different situational outcomes” to show fans the likelihood of a guy driving in a run or laying down a good bunt or whatnot. It’s debatable whether seeing these percentages are truly meaningful given the small sample sizes; still, it’s a nice touch informationally that speaks to what Apple and MLB can do to better engage audiences, software-wise. More to the point, however, these probability overlays are decidedly less visually accessible than the rest of the graphics. Contrast is lower because the information is merely superimposed onto the field, so the white text tends to blend into the background. Its smaller size doesn’t help matters either. There have been opinions on Twitter about showing such metadata to begin with, but if Apple and MLB insist on it, then the design can be improved. Box the ancillary info in the same manner as the main, akin to how CBS displays the current leaderboard during its Masters golf coverage. Or maybe use a heavier font weight to compensate for the transparency and boost legibility. It’d also be helpful if the baserunner indicator was made a little larger; FOX’s baseball graphics are especially good in this regard.
On the plus side, Deaf and hard-of-hearing people have access to captioning for the announcing crew in a nice, big font. Spatial Audio is supported, as is a plethora of high-resolution cameras. (No official word yet on 4K broadcasts, but a reasonable assumption would be it’s in the pipeline for later in the season.) Question marks include whether Apple plans to support proper audio descriptions for the games, as well as other accessibility enhancements for the Blind and low vision community separate from the recommendations made in this story.
As these critiques illustrate, not everyone watching TV can see well. Likewise, CODA has subtitles because, of course, obviously not everyone speaks ASL; the subtitles exist for—that’s right—accessibility’s sake!
Broadly speaking, it’s important to pick nits such as these because, again, a television is yet another screen that technology companies must accommodate for if they want to use their war chests to invest in rolling their own streaming services. For Apple’s part, it’s very much early innings—pun fully intended—for Friday Night Baseball. Apropos for them, production value is slick but there remains lots of room for improvement. It’s an opportunity for Apple not only to dip their toe into carrying live sports, but apply their own sensibilities to making this new product as accessible as possible for all baseball fans, disabled included.
This week’s Friday Night Baseball has the Tampa Bay Rays facing the White Sox from Chicago’s south side in the early game, while the nightcap has the Cincinnati Reds playing the Dodgers in Los Angeles.