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September 15, 2003

Prospectus Today

MLB Shoots Itself in the Foot, Part 4,891

by Joe Sheehan

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Sophia and I had a wedding to attend (congrats, Flack and Sara!) in Oceanside on Saturday. With the nuptials at 4:30, I was pretty much free to indulge in watching sports until the mid-afternoon.

Now, I like college football, so I was perfectly happy to watch as much of that as possible. I did, however, expect to see a baseball game during the day, assuming that Fox would have its Game of the Week at 1 p.m. PDT as it always does. Looking over the schedule, I thought it was odd that there were so few attractive matchups scheduled for the day. The Yankees and Devil Rays were the only 10 a.m. PDT game, while the Giants and Brewers, Cubs and Reds, and Orioles and Blue Jays were scheduled for one o'clock.

Just before 1:00, I checked the program schedule and just about collapsed from the shock: no Game of the Week. Are you kidding me? Two weeks to go in the season, half the teams in baseball still chasing playoff spots, terrific matchups like White Sox/Red Sox and Braves/Marlins on the schedule, a nation of couch potatoes sitting in front of their televisions, and MLB takes this opportunity to fold its tent?

I know it was likely Fox's decision, predicated on not wanting to compete with either broadcast college football or its own Fox Sports Net package of gridiron games. So what? It's MLB's job to choose a broadcast partner that will help it promote the game, and that means more than setting up stupid gimmicks for the All-Star Game. Abandoning the national stage at a time when its product should be at its most attractive isn't just stupid, it's corporate malfeasance.

This can't be good for postseason ratings, either. What baseball should be doing is creating interest in the teams and players who will be taking the field beginning September 30. You want people getting excited about Barry Bonds and Mark Prior and Nomar Garciaparra now, so that when you stick their games in prime time next month, you have a greater chance of drawing an audience. If I'm understanding the schedule properly, there are no more over-the-air baseball games until the Division Series, which is one of the most bizarre, counterproductive, self-mutilating decisions I have ever seen.

The Fox Game of the Week is poorly conceived, anyway, extending the regionalization idea that worked so well for CBS in 1990-93, and for The Baseball Network in 1995. It's another example of MLB aping the NFL, whose broadcast package shoves the local team--however bad, as long as they sell out--down the local fans' throats all season long. (I used to live in New York, which was a nightmare for televised football. I hope L.A. never gets a team as long as I'm stuck here.) For MLB, the idea that people won't watch teams from outside their own area becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy if you don't take the time to promote, to sell, to hype all the great things happening in baseball stadiums around the country.

It's this mindset that gives us the Wild Card and expanded playoffs as well. For the better part of a century, baseball fans followed baseball. Fans of the local team, yes, but also appreciative of a great race between teams in other cities. It was actually part of the magic of being a baseball fan, that you had these great things called "pennant races" that the other leagues couldn't lay claim to. Even after 1969, the win-or-go-home nature of divisional races allowed for great Septembers in most years.

The new angle, borrowed from the lesser sports, is that you have to maintain local interest as long as possible, and that means lowering the bar for playoff spots. It's questionable whether this does anything for local interest--attendance and local ratings for teams in Wild Card "races" haven't been anything special--but it's certain that it lessens the game as a whole, taking away the chance for great storylines that would keep fans everywhere riveted to the sport on a daily basis, and carrying their interest into the post-season. Usually, people who deride the Wild Card are dismissed as "purists." In fact, they're the people who recognize that the value of baseball's great pennant races is in the way they, by being different than the races for playoff spots provided by other sports, attract the casual fan in a way that the contest for the #6 seed in the NFC never could.

Baseball just won't sell it that way. Better to be like the NFL in as many ways as possible, ignoring that the NFL's true advantages are 1) marketing and 2) the ease and prevalence of gambling. MLB can't do anything about #2, but if they'd stop copying the details of the NFL and focus on the larger issue--how well the league presents and promotes its game--they might actually get somewhere.

MLB is lousy at promoting its product, but it usually looked like they were trying. To give up, to as much as say that it's not as attractive a product as college football, is embarrassing to it and to all of us who love the game and want to see it succeed. Baseball deserves to have people running it who are as dedicated to promoting it as those outside of the game. That it doesn't is one of the great disappointments of my short life.

Doug, what's that countdown clock at?

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Joe's other articles. You can contact Joe by clicking here

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