Foul Territory Illustration by Liam McGuire. Photo Credit: USA TODAY

Midway through this year’s NLDS matchup between the Phillies and Braves, baseball struck gold.

At the end of Game Two, Phillies star Bryce Harper’s baserunning blunder led to a game-sealing double play and a tie series. Postgame, Atlanta All-Star Orlando Arcia was overheard jeering at Harper with a sarcastic “attaboy.” Harper responded in Game Three with two homers, knocking in four of Philadelphia’s 10 runs. As he rounded the basepaths, Harper dogged Arcia and soaked up the hate like it was fuel.

If you freeze-frame it there, that’s a dramatic moment any sport would dream to have between two division rivals duking it out for a trip to the Fall Classic.

But in typical MLB fashion, the sport’s gatekeepers swung and missed at the golden opportunity for intrigue. The incident was promptly shredded through the meat-grinder of baseball culture, with reporters being attacked, players getting their feelings hurt, and a whole bunch of nonsense that distracted from Philadelphia’s return to the NLCS with a badass squad of mashers.

Over at Foul Territory, the digital baseball show launched by longtime MLB Network host Scott Braun and MLB veterans AJ Pierzynski, Erik Kratz and Todd Frazier earlier this year, the crew was trying its best to salvage an incredible baseball moment.

“Personally, I thought it was freaking awesome,” Pierzynski said the next day on FT‘s daily livestream. “That’s what we want in this game, isn’t it? Isn’t this what other sports have?”

It was an all-too-familiar situation for the crew of baseball lifers trying to turn FT into a vibrant, daily source of content for diehard fans of the national pastime. It was also a reminder of why they launched the brand in the first place.

“The spots that make me the most excited is when something controversial happens in the sport news-wise and we get to talk it out,” said Braun, the founder, executive producer and anchor of Foul Territory. “Those instances occur at least weekly if not daily within our sport.”

Braun joined MLB Network in 2012 and fell deeper in love with the sport and its personalities. But he soon realized the energy and intrigue around baseball wasn’t as accessible to most fans as it was to someone like him working behind the scenes.

As he got to know more athletes personally, he found that they felt it too. They didn’t have an outlet to connect with fans they felt were leaving the sport in droves. And if they couldn’t show baseball lovers, especially younger ones, the type of authenticity and personality that sells online today, they worried what the future of the sport would look like.

“Baseball is one of the biggest revenue sports in the world and it is full of personalities, storylines, drama,” Braun told Awful Announcing. “And I actually feel like if you don’t have content like this, it hurts fans, it hurts branding for players, and most importantly of all, it hurts the sport and connecting to a younger audience who are used to hearing more authenticity from people.”

Baseball needs new audiences badly. After averaging 20-30 million viewers for World Series games following the strike in 1994, MLB viewership has been in steady decline the past two decades. Baseball Tonight went from daily to weekly six years ago. The MLB YouTube channel has fewer than one-third as many subscribers as the NBA or NFL’s channel. Its playoff games are on cable until the World Series, and regional sports network bankruptcies have threatened local broadcast revenue.

This year, baseball finally addressed core issues in gameplay by instituting a pitch clock and banning certain defensive alignments, among other changes. Ratings are mostly static.

Meanwhile, current and former athletes began to carve out their own massive space within sports media. The success stories in “new media,” from Draymond Green (who dubbed the term) to Pat McAfee to Fred Taylor, opened Braun’s eyes to the fact that the athletes he covered could be his partners on a new kind of project.

That’s when he reached out to potential partners like Pierzynski, an ideal co-host who bridged multiple perspectives in baseball. Pierzynski is a well-known 18-year veteran in MLB and a World Series winner. He also has called games for Fox Sports for more than a decade.

Pierzynski jumped at the opportunity. He was excited to cover the league as a whole rather than just plugging into one game or one playoff series. He also saw an opportunity to build a platform that gave reporters, analysts and people around baseball an outlet to talk about the game when few others exist.

“We all love baseball, but you don’t get to talk about it in an open setting very often,” Pierzynski said. “It’s important for people to understand how things work, because I think everyone thinks baseball players are this little bubble where everyone is just happy, sitting around.”

He and Kratz now appear daily on the two-hour program, lending their expertise as journeyman catchers. Frazier and five-time All-Star outfielder Adam Jones join weekly, while Jason Kipnis, Lorenzo Cain and Brock Holt join a few times per month to round out the core cast.

Unlike the NFL or NBA, where new league partners thirst for broadcast rights and analyst and podcast jobs are competitive with high turnover, baseball is pretty quiet. Athletes like Mookie Betts and Trevor Plouffe have broken through and the networks air studio shows around games, but you’d be hard-pressed to count more than a couple dozen baseball players with significant platforms to discuss the sport.

“In other sports, if you’re a big personality, once you step off the field, most likely you’re going to be part of some form of media,” Braun explained. “In baseball, I just felt like that wasn’t the case and just brought up the question.

“Why? Why isn’t that the case? Is it because some of the gigs aren’t paying enough? Is it because a lot of the players made a lot of money and just want to chill?”

The more he asked around, the more he realized the problem came from a lack of opportunity. So he, along with several key partners, created one.

Year one for the brand was a solid success. Through a licensing deal with Stadium, a major sponsorship with Bet MGM, and partnerships with companies like XBox, Alaska Airlines and more, the business is developing along with a loyal audience online. It helps the corporate bank accounts to have athletes on-staff, with on-site activations at MGM sportsbooks and at MLB and Alumni Association events.

FT broadcasts from the Borgata Hotel & Casino in Atlantic City weekly as part of its deal with Bet MGM. They run a show called Legends Territory in partnership with the MLB Alumni Association. They got a headstart from a content and revenue standpoint because of the connections Braun and the players brought.

Other connections have helped too. The network is the exclusive home of Ken Rosenthal’s podcast, Fair Territory. Braun brought on longtime ESPN and MLB Network producer Marc Weiner to oversee production for the network.

With money coming in, a committed staff of strong voices, and a baseball calendar begging for content, FT is headed in a solid direction. The only thing holding it back might be that prickly baseball culture.

Following the Arcia-Harper beef, Braves catcher Travis D’Arnaud added fuel to the fire when he spoke on behalf of the sanctity of the clubhouse and the space baseball players ought to be given to talk trash in peace. (Guess someone has got to uphold the Braves gatekeeping without Brian McCann and Freddie Freeman around).

It made Pierzynski crazy.

“You turn on an NBA playoff series, you’ve got Draymond Green talking trash about LeBron James, then everyone tunes in,” Pierzynski said. “You turn on a baseball game and one person says some halfway negative thing about somebody, and it’s, ‘oh no, oh gosh.’”

And team and league PR are not always likely to lean into attention, even if it’s a net positive.

“It’s going to have to turn slowly, and it starts with team PR who are so protective of their players,” Pierzynski said.

After something juicy happens, “people tune in to see it because they want to know if it happens or not. That’s what makes people interested and that’s what makes fans buy into the situation and not just be the casual fan.”

Younger casual fans are a key part of what FT is trying to do. In addition to living on YouTube, the brand has 34,000 followers on TikTok, where it posts daily. Popular young stars like Corbin Burnes join the show frequently. Live stream watch parties and instant postgame reaction streams have been a boon during the playoffs.

“Baseball fans have changed the same way any fan base has changed,” Braun explained. “And I don’t feel like the options were out there.”

The FT crew believes it is (re)growing the game and filling a void for baseball fans. And in the process, they are opening new pathways for athletes who want to make content and cover the game in the future.

“We’re not going anywhere,” Braun said. “This is real and there’s an audience and our team is having a ton of fun doing it. The main word is more.”

More as in more sponsorships, perhaps more shows like Brew Crew Territory, the network’s Brewers-specific show. And more accessibility, including potentially adapting the show into a Spanish-language product in some way, Pierzynski said.

Maybe in a world where a punter can make it to ESPN or a 6-foot-4 shooting guard can have the biggest NBA interview show, two catchers and some journeymen really can change the baseball content game.

FT may be held back by a frustratingly old-fashioned sport afraid of change and attention. But after a year of growth and positive feedback, FT is trying its damnedest to break through and course-correct years of baseball’s failures.

Scott Braun is this week’s guest on Short and to the Point with Jessica Kleinschmidt, which is available on Apple PodcastsSpotify, and wherever you get your podcasts.

About Brendon Kleen

Brendon is a Media Commentary staff writer at Awful Announcing. He has also covered basketball and sports business at Front Office Sports, SB Nation, Uproxx and more.