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Rethinking baseball on national television

There’s a stigma attached to writing about baseball’s predicament on television. Mostly, the idea that if you write about it, you’re proclaiming the death of the sport. It’s fair that the people who love it (which includes me) defend it, because as we’ve seen with soccer, sometimes it’s worth defending the thing that you like more than almost anything.

Fact is, however, that Major League Baseball has a national television problem. Sunday Night Baseball is doing fine, but ESPN still has to program MLB action twice a week, and those matches are hardly noticeable, and rarely very highly-rated. A Mets-Cardinals game that followed the USA-Ghana match drew 1.5 million viewers, a huge number for their Monday Night Baseball franchise. After a World Cup match, another Monday night tussle — one of three that week — between a bad Mets team and one of the worst Cardinal teams in a while just doesn’t inspire much feeling.

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There are still tons of people watching baseball, attending games, watching on local television. The fact is, MLB’s showcase games do not draw anything close to what the NBA’s does. The NBA gets the benefit of airing during the winter, when everyone is inside, but the NBA also has games on TNT Thursday nights when they do battle with the toughest weeknight of primetime television. We always joke about how meaningless the NBA’s regular season is… but why are NBA games on ABC and TNT drawing more viewers than MLB games on Fox, ESPN and FS1?

It’s something I’ve thought about a lot, and something that kind of boiled over in my brain when I read a Sports Media Watch post on Fox’s recent MLB ratings. Now, Fox has employed a different strategy televising baseball this season, and not just in terms of how many weeks (eight in primetime during May/June/July and four in the afternoon in September) but which teams. Instead of always going for New York, Chicago, LA and their rivals, they’ve pretty much split the 29 American teams pretty evenly, at least through these eight primetime weeks.

This has led to the numbers falling off a cliff, because while they’re showcasing more teams than they used to, they’re doing no better in showing the “best” MLB game of the week on Saturday than they were when it was Yankees/Red Sox, Mets/Braves or Giants/Dodgers every week. The audience has responded: Fox has seen double digit drops, from 13% to 46%, from primetime action in similar windows last season.

While a lot of the reasoning for this has been that Fox has wanted to showcase games on FS1, the strategy hasn’t necessarily worked. As myself and Ken Fang have written for this website, those numbers have not been very good either, though Fox is being patient, as well they should. It takes time to grow a new property. Unlike MLB on FS1, however, MLB on Fox is not a new property, it is merely a faulty one.

Fox has seen ratings trend downwards on Saturdays for years, now. I wrote about this very subject last year for SB Nation, in which I posed a lot of the problems with the modern MLB on television, and they remain the same. The match ups problem is, if anything, even more of a problem.

Let’s give you an example: this Saturday, FS1 is broadcasting Arizona and Atlanta. While the Braves are in a divisional race, Arizona is one of the worst teams in baseball. At the same exact time, the first and second place teams in the NL Central — Milwaukee and Cincinnati — will be facing off. Not only that, but both teams play on FSN stations (something Fox values for FS1 games) and both teams have talent that has worked nationally televised games before.

Fox’s slate that night isn’t any better: though the Red Sox have played better, they are still an under .500 team, and will play the Orioles in the featured game. The other two regional splits: an inter league dud between the Rangers and Mets and the solid Giants taking on the lowly Padres. Meanwhile, the first place teams in the AL East (Toronto) and AL West (Oakland) are facing off that night.

You may ask… what about ratings? Well, you’re getting the same ratings no matter what matchup you show, apparently. MLB on Fox and ESPN ratings are in the same range, with maybe still a small boost for Yankees-Red Sox. Why don’t these networks focus on becoming the place for big games, rather than either catering to big markets or catering to fairness?

That still doesn’t fix the major problem: there’s just too many games, and there’s just too many games on at the same time as the nationally televised game. This is why I’m proposing a change to the way baseball is broadcast. Here’s the point I’ve been trying to make here for a while:

It’s time to give up the MLB Game of the Week on Saturdays.

I know, I know. It’s tradition. But realistically, the tradition is from generations past, who celebrated their lone chance to see baseball on national television, and then in the 80s, when Vin Scully was calling the games. Does anyone feel any particular, special attachment to a nationally televised game on Saturday, be it afternoon or night? I can’t think of anyone who mentions it in the same vein as Sunday Night Football  or even Sunday Night Baseball. Honestly, right now, as a brand it’s probably closer to NBCSN’s Wednesday Night Rivalry.

Viewing habits have changed. We watch less television on Saturdays, be it sports or whatever else. No network programs a regularly-scheduled scripted show on the night and won’t for the foreseeable future. It is a dead zone unless you’re college football, NASCAR or special playoff telecasts of any sport.

What do you instead, though? ESPN has set nights when they air baseball (Sunday, Monday and Wednesday), Fox has one (Saturday), TBS kind of has one (Sunday afternoons after the All-Star break) and MLB Network cleans up the rest. My idea would take some work, but it might make the television partners happy, and therefor, make MLB happy.

First, get rid of Fox’s Saturday telecasts. Give them to MLB Network in exchange for the timeslots they’re going to have to give up. In fact, MLB Network — which does such an excellent job of keeping baseball vibrant and relevant — should be allowed to keep up the Saturday Game of the Week tradition. Bob Costas at Yankee Stadium on a Saturday afternoon seems like a pretty good deal to me. ESPN also keeps Sunday nights the way they are.

What I want to do is change Mondays and Thursday. These are typically light baseball days that see some afternoon action and fewer games, and a lot of travel days. That would be the case for every team except for two on both days for the entire season from now on. For 28 teams, on Mondays and Thursdays you’re either taking the day off or playing in the afternoon, unless rainouts interfere.

Monday night in primetime, ESPN gets an exclusive game to market similarly to how they market Monday Night Football. Similarly, Thursday night, Fox Sports 1 gets Thursday Night Baseball. Both are exclusive in the timeslots, the only games airing at that hour, and are dedicated to picking the best matchup. They can flex games up to two weeks until the air date. This will create three nights of primetime baseball where there’s one game valued over all others.

This would also bring back day baseball, one of the great traditions of the past. MLB teams seem to continue to make gobs of money no matter what they do, so the attendance dips won’t be too bad. They can just make up for it by playing on Saturday nights more consistently if they want and using flexible pricing, which they do anyway. The changes would also make MLB.tv way more valuable to the fan on the go. You now have far more options to follow baseball during the day, should you so choose.

It’s not a cure for everything, and maybe it turns out baseball bites off a little bit more than it can chew with the idea. But it shows baseball as willing to change with American TV viewing habits without hurting its brand anywhere else. Baseball is doing fine, but it’s time to look at a radical way to change what doesn’t work about it. Think outside the batter’s box on television, for once.

Steve Lepore

About Steve Lepore

Steve Lepore is a writer for Bloguin and a correspondent for SiriusXM NHL Network Radio.

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