Why I’m enthusiastic about the MLB Network
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.