There have long been complaints about Sunday Night Baseball games running too late, and it appears ESPN is set to change that. As per Ronald Blum of The Associated Press, the network is set to move its Sunday night start times up by an hour for the 2019 season:
ESPN plans to announce it will move up the starting time of the nationally televised game by one hour, with the first pitch planned for shortly after 7 p.m. EDT.
The network intends to make the announcement on Monday at the winter meetings, a person familiar with the decision told The Associated Press. The person spoke on condition of anonymity Sunday because the announcement had not yet been made.
This isn’t just about complaints from media members or fans about late start times, although there have been plenty of those from East Coast media types. As Blum notes, the bigger influence here may be complaints from players, as Sunday night games have often seen at least one team travelling afterwards, reaching their next city in the morning, and arguing that they’re at a sleep disadvantage against their next opponent. It’s unclear if moving games up by an hour will totally fix that, but it may make it a little easier on the players.
However, it should also be noted that Sunday night is one of the few cases where a move like this might be neutral or even positive from a TV standpoint as well. There’s a reason that many nationally-televised events start at 8 p.m. Eastern or later; that’s the start of the “prime time” window on the East Coast, getting viewers to tune in after dinner, and it’s also 5 p.m. on the West Coast, so those games can get some people tuning in once they get off work and get home (most don’t make it home right at 5, but it’s still a better weekday start for the West Coast than 7 would be).
On weekends, though, that timing’s a bit more flexible; there’s still a big audience for the primetime window (as NBC’s Sunday Night Football with its 8:15 p.m. Eastern start and its most-watched for a seventh-straight year status helps indicate, although we still maintain it’s behind American Idol), but starting something at 7 p.m. Eastern instead of 8 p.m. Eastern isn’t as ruinous as it might be on a weekday, as there aren’t as many West Coast potential viewers still at work. That also might help them retain the East Coast audience, as long-running games often lead to East Coast viewers who have to work in the morning checking out before the end.
At any rate, it makes some sense for ESPN to move this up given the complaints from players. And with this being for a weekend series, it might not wind up being all that bad in the ratings; there could still be a negative effect here (they haven’t been starting things at 8 just for the fun of it; that’s likely the time they figured was best for maximizing a national audience), but it’s likely less disastrous than it would be to move a weeknight game up, and there are arguments that this might be neutral or even positive for ratings. We’ll see how it turns out for them.