Why I’m enthusiastic about the MLB Network

DMZ · January 1, 2009 at 12:56 pm · Filed Under General baseball 

I’m a little excited, and not for the reasons MLB’s pushing.

MLB has an amazing opportunity here.

First, in showing off great moments in baseball to demonstrate why it’s a great game. ESPN Classic hasn’t cut it.

Second, in drawing in new people in other ways and converting them to dedicated fans of the game. I’d love to see shows with different managers talking about strategies, and you could do some amazing things walking through big decisions in their careers. I’m not a Tony LaRussa fan, but I’d love to spend an hour hearing him talk about how his bullpen management philosophy came about, and where he thinks it’s won games and where it’s failed him. Earl Weaver’s still alive — put that guy in front of a camera and start showing him game footage. I’ll bet it’d be must-watch television.

Third, in bringing great games people don’t normally see nationally to everyone. The temptation to build ratings by broadcasting every Yankee-Red Sox game that ESPN and Fox don’t pick up is probably going to be too much. But there’s still be game on game every day they could eventually be showing: great pitching matchups, milestones threatened, rivalry games, interesting debuts, especially by pitchers… if you’ve ever had the Extra Innings package and are anywhere near as baseball-obsessed as I am, you’ve seen this — every day, there are games that are interesting and worth watching, and for MLB, it’s worth showing people that and talking about the why.

Fourth, in giving us a winter fix.

A long time ago, I had a random, half-formed idea about doing a baseball channel and broadcasting essentially second-tier games for the crazed fan (at the time, to tie this into the M’s, my particular pitch was being able to watch Nick Johnson, who I’ve always been a huge, huge fan of, and who I know really hope the M’s pick up). And then in winter, you air the AFL games, Venezuela games, international competitions, whatever you can buy a feed to or put a camera on. Kids in Hawaii on a backlot, it doesn’t matter. Get people their fix through the winter. And then, of course, analysis… so I called someone I’m not sure wants to be named here but who is amazingly smart and savvy about this stuff and he started to laugh when I was a couple sentences into it.

“We can’t do it,” he said. “I tried this a while ago. Guess how much (domestic minor league) wanted for television rights.”
“I don’t know,” I replied. “They’re don’t have distribution now, I’d guess $foo and then an ad split.”
He named a figure that curls my hair to think of now. It was field-a-major-league-team high.
“I couldn’t put together enough funding,” he said. And then we started to talk about rights and demographics, so I’ll stop the digression.

MLB has the money, the distribution, and can make this happen.

And most importantly it’s another step towards making MLB a more nationally-oriented game with shared revenue. MLB’s current territorial system structure massively and unfairly favors the New York teams and there’s nothing anyone can do about it until it’s reformed. I understand MLB’s been trying to reform this behind the scenes for years, and Selig for all his faults is amazing at putting together a consensus he can get passed. I’ll spare everyone an off-topic rant about baseball’s revenue inequities, though.

This helps — it provides an example of how baseball is extra-territorial in the same way MLB.com has. It helps to ease the disparity if it’s handled right. If in a few years every team’s making an extra $10m, $20m from the MLB Network revenues, that helps Kansas City a lot more than it does the Mets. It provides recognition that baseball fans in the Midwest play a vital part in baseball’s national success out of proportion to their cities’ population relative to New York. I’m hopeful it could help the push towards territorial reform and better revenue distribution.

I’ll offer one cautionary note, though — don’t expect serious analysis from MLB TV. Don’t get your hopes up at all. They have the opportunity to experiment, but looking over their earlier schedule they’re trying to reach out to a couple of audiences and if they’re even interested in the informed, SABR-friendly baseball fan, they think they’ll pick them up with more general-interest programming.

And on that same subject, don’t expect objective or interesting analysis either. I know there are examples (right now particularly, the NBA is letting some of this run) of company shops criticizing the product. It’s not going to happen here. We don’t need to look any farther than how MLB.com is run: their streaming product is now amazingly good, the game coverage is decent enough, and it’s a fine source of quotes, but if you read the disclaimer that

This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

without rolling your eyes or seeing the subtle distinction they’re making there, well, please send USSM a bar off the stash of leprechaun gold you and your unicorn steed will stumble across shortly.

MLB.com has no negative coverage. Not of teams, players, anything. The harshest thing you’ll see said about the worst player is that they’re having a challenging season, or they’re struggling. It’s boosterism, nearly nonstop, designed to promote the product in the same way the team’s broadcasts are commercials for the team and not news broadcasts.

If they do put together any content that’s openly critical of the product or any players, I’ll be surprised, but I’m sure they’re cynical enough to put together something that proves they’re objective and edgy, within what are sure to be well-defined boundaries. Even then, though, maybe that would prove popular and lead them to loosen up on content restrictions… I’m hopeful.

Don’t let any of that take away from the overall point, though: this could be a leap forward for baseball, worth checking out now as well as a sign of progress and yet things to come.

Don Larsen’s perfect game is on tonight, followed by an interview with Larsen and Yogi! I’d rather watch that than the Orange Bowl.


25 Responses to “Why I’m enthusiastic about the MLB Network”

  1. mike on January 1st, 2009 1:09 pm

    I’m excited about Larsen’s game, too: apparently it has never been replayed in its entirety, and they colorized it. Plus it will have Red Barber & a young Vin Scully on the ‘cast. This will be fun – I wonder if they had a center field camera?

  2. thr33niL on January 1st, 2009 1:58 pm

    Really tempted to get this. Anyone know if it comes with the Digital Home HD package with Charter? MLBNetwork.com says Charter carries it in “my area” but don’t see it anywhere on Charters website.

  3. msb on January 1st, 2009 2:33 pm

    so, analysts Barry Larkin, Joe Magrane, Al Leiter and Harold Reynolds, reporters Trenni Kusnierek and Hazel Mae, baseball insiders Jon Heyman and Tom Verducci, and on-air staff Matt Vasgersian, Victor Rojas & Greg Amsinger.

  4. joser on January 1st, 2009 3:50 pm

    They colorized it? Philistines!

  5. PLU Tim on January 1st, 2009 3:54 pm

    So, is this going to stay as a “free” cable channel or is it going to go to an a-la-carte package?

    I’ll give it a shot for a while, but if it becomes YESII, I’ll lose interest.

    So far, they are 0-1. I turned the channel on and, of course, talking Yankee baseball.

  6. bakomariner on January 1st, 2009 4:15 pm

    Pretty good overall first show. Wasn’t fantastic, as I have been waiting with excitement for it, but it was fine. Better than Basseball Tonight.

  7. mike on January 1st, 2009 5:57 pm

    They didn’t colorize it, and its Mel Allen not Red Barber. I got some facts wrong.

    Oh, and Roy Campanella = bad body.

  8. Replacementlvlposter on January 1st, 2009 5:58 pm

    I really need to dump Dish Network.

  9. msb on January 1st, 2009 6:39 pm

    hey. Campy had a catchers body.

  10. mike on January 1st, 2009 6:42 pm

    Campy sure makes the chest protector look small!

  11. msb on January 1st, 2009 6:48 pm

    well, it was.

  12. MattThompson on January 1st, 2009 6:56 pm

    This may be the final nail in the coffin for my Dish Network subscription. First they took away the Extra Innings package, now the don’t carry MLB network.

    I’m just scared it will end up being superficial coverage and boosterism. Like Derek, I thought of the ‘watch games with commentary from participants’ and thought that would be cool, but a longshot for ever seeing the air. Get the managers, and a couple of key players from each side, and have them watch an old game (big playoff games are a natural fit), and make it similar to a DVD-commentary track. Earl Weaver doing one of these would be brilliant.

    So, I can’t watch MLB for now. At least I’ve got the Mythbusters marathon for tonight.

  13. BoiseMoose on January 1st, 2009 7:13 pm

    I’m happy to say it was added to my DirecTV package for no added fee. Right now I’m watching the Hot Stove report, Harold Reynolds is back! I dunno about anyone else, but he was my favorite broadcaster on Baseball Tonight. So far, it looks pretty good. I’m excited to see what they will bring to the table.

  14. diderot on January 1st, 2009 7:17 pm

    I’ve got two other thoughts on optimism for this thing.
    First, there is a national misconception about the ‘popularity’ of baseball. Those who say it’s not ‘America’s pastime’ anymore just don’t know what they’re talking about. Whether you measure on the basis of fans attending, total viewing audience, or any other gross measurement no one is close. In fact, the #3 sport for ticket sales is minor league baseball. So this channel is going to be popular, and as suggested, it will expand both the total audience and the depth of allegiance to the sport.
    That total audience leads to my second thought. I believe the prevalence of fantasy baseball and stat sites on the net is not lost on MLB. You have to assume that the first couple weeks of this network have been programmed meticulously in advance. Sort of like a football coach deciding on the first eight plays of the game no matter what. But eventually, the programmers will experiment with other formats. And when they do, I think they will find a ready audience first serving the fantasy players…and eventually, even the statheads. Think about your favorite sources for this material, in print or online. It can easily translate to this network. I have hope.
    One more positive point–I have been surprised at the autonomy of MLB’s online site…much more objective, informative and independent than I feared. I think this speaks well for the prospects for the TV network.
    OK…one downer. As much as I liked watching Harold Reynolds play, I can’t stand hearing him talk. He’s an idiot.

  15. Breadbaker on January 2nd, 2009 12:18 am

    So far it seems to be on my Comcast without any additional package (unlike the too-evil-for-words NFL Network). It is wonderful to have biked through snow this afternoon and be watching baseball on TV tonight.

  16. mike on January 2nd, 2009 12:35 am

    I turned it on later and caught Reynolds, Leiter, Larkin, and Jimmy Rollins analyzing Jackie Robinson’s famous steal of home in the world series. That was a cool segemnt.

  17. greymstreet on January 2nd, 2009 12:39 am

    I hope you enjoyed that interview. Don went to a lot of trouble to give it…

  18. msb on January 2nd, 2009 6:29 am

    I just saw that. Nothing like a stubborn old man 🙂

  19. galaxieboi on January 2nd, 2009 8:33 am

    Whooo! What channel is it on on DirectTV? I couldnt find it yesterday.

  20. diderot on January 2nd, 2009 10:19 am

    213 on DirecTV.

  21. Evan on January 2nd, 2009 10:25 am

    They just need to get this into Canada and we’ll be set.

    Of course, it will never happen. At best, Rogers will create a Canadian version of it that pales in comparison but promotes the Toronto Blue Jays exclusively.

    I want the MLB Network, dammit, and the stupid Canadian regulations are going to help Rogers keep it from me.

    I hate the CRTC. It’s like the FCC if they were afraid of foreigners instead of boobs.

  22. galaxieboi on January 2nd, 2009 10:54 am

    213 on DirecTV.

    Thanks, diderot!

  23. galaxieboi on January 2nd, 2009 11:02 am

    Evan, isn’t there a Canadian radio rule about having to play at least x% of Canadian artists?

  24. joser on January 2nd, 2009 12:49 pm

    Yes (“CanCon“), and it’s directly responsible for the awesomeness that was Bob and Doug Mackenzie. (It’s also responsible for a lot of weirdness and stupidity, like a Bryan Adams album being determined to not quality as Canadian).

  25. msb on January 2nd, 2009 8:32 pm

    Yes (”CanCon“), and it’s directly responsible for the awesomeness that was Bob and Doug Mackenzie.


    Monday Night Curling, It’s a Canadian Fact, Headline Challenge, Hinterland Who’s Who …

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