In early November, we reported some growing conjecture and internal enthusiasm that ESPN was gearing up to bring back daily baseball studio programming. Fast forward to today, and Awful Announcing has learned that ESPN has turned away from this possibility and is no longer considering such a move as the 2019 season draws closer. The iconic show will still air as it did in 2018 as a Sunday night countdown leading up to Sunday Night Baseball.
ESPN president Jimmy Pitaro, a known baseball fan, had internally conveyed an interest in bringing back the popular show beyond Sunday nights, in addition to hunting more Postseason rights for ESPN down the road. While the latter is still possible, ESPN has decided to walk away from the potential daily relaunch of baseball studio programming because of two developments:
1. MLB has opted to let ESPN slide on a contractual obligation to have a certain amount of studio shows during each season. MLB gave ground here in part due to some horse trading with ESPN, who agreed to allow Sunday Night Baseball to start an hour earlier and have a consistent start time of 7 PM ET. While ratings experts internally at ESPN believe this may actually lead to a decline in viewership, the extra hour adds a bit of relief to the already rigorous MLB travel schedule that often has teams flying cross country after the late night game window.
2. Despite the enthusiasm of Pitaro and others in increased MLB coverage, ultimately the ratings projections for baseball-specific programming on ESPN instead of SportsCenter only reaffirmed the original decision that Baseball Tonight or other baseball-specific programming no longer made sense for the network as a daily program. SportsCenter draws more viewers than Baseball Tonight, and siphoning off viewers to change over to ESPN2 after a game wasn’t deemed as a practical option, given that the network would be producing two shows and mostly splitting the same audience.
ESPN began slimming down their MLB studio ambitions in the spring of 2017 on the heels of a large round of layoffs at the company. The network plugged that programming hole by partnering with MLB Network to syndicate Intentional Talk. That partnership lapsed after this season, and with their contractual obligation to MLB, ESPN seemed poised for a MLB studio programming comeback.
That optimism (which ESPN never commented on and proved to just be conjecture) proved to be premature and now ESPN is closing in on a 2019 season without any original daily MLB programming and without the MLB Network partnership. While this is certainly not a particularly positive development for baseball fans, I think that’s just where we are in terms of national interest in baseball. There’s just more national interest in the other major sports (especially the NFL, NBA, and college football,) despite the fact local fandom for baseball continues to thrive. Maybe the sport isn’t actually losing national interest, but in terms of airtime on national TV and radio programming, it’s hard to argue MLB’s piece of the sports media pie has not been getting smaller over the last decade or two.
For example, compare the media frenzy related to Anthony Davis’ trade request and the national fervor and interest that has generated compared to the measured amount of buzz surrounding MLB’s two biggest free agents (Bryce Harper and Manny Machado, two bona fide superstars) still looking for their next home roughly two weeks before the start of Spring Training. At the end of the day, you can understand why ESPN is shying away from airing MLB-specific studio programming when you know they’d much prefer to have Woj on set in Bristol going through the latest NBA mini drama. It just seems that there is a new reality that fewer MLB stories break out as being major national stories opposed to the NFL, college football, and the NBA.
Ultimately, that trend is playing the biggest role as to why the worldwide leader can’t commit to bringing back what was once a quite revered and well-received staple for them and for baseball fans alike.