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November 21, 2007

6-4-3

ESPN and MLB

by Gary Huckabay

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The term "jump the shark" has become common parlance for an entire generation that wasn't even forced to watch Happy Days. Not that I'm that old, but a whole bunch of crap that would be relegated to the low 300s on DirecTV used to be on network television, and people watched it, primarily because there were only about five TV offerings available, even in big markets. But since we're condemned, as a species, to always view the past through sepia-toned or rose-colored lens, we tend to think that the dreck we used to consume is somehow more virtuous and wonderful than it really was.

As an example, I offer The Wire versus any show produced during the era of when we were limited to the triumvirate of nationwide networks, plus those one or two UHF offerings usually staffed with borderline alcoholic afternoon movie hosts. The reality is that most of the dreck we used to watch was pretty bad, and there's a lot more good television out there now. Of course, the percentage of available stuff that's good has dropped to under one percent, but that's livable, considering the vast amount of television programming being produced.

That being said, how bloody awful has ESPN gotten? I ask because to some extent, contract or no contract, ESPN and Major League Baseball are married to each other, and even if they get divorced, it'll be one of those divorces that's civil, and where one party occasionally stays over a few days to see the kids during the summer. I've been in the business development area in one form or another for about twenty years, and I still always underestimate how much effort is required to maintain and nurture a relationship. ESPN's clearly grown very tired of expending energy on the relationship with MLB. The second anything remotely resembling an alternative becomes available, ESPN shunts baseball aside like a suddenly unattractive first wife. I'll argue that in the long run, I think that's a good thing-for baseball.

I know that BP's a place one comes to escape the emotionally-overloaded world of sports journalism, at least to some extent. We're more likely to present some logic, some reason, and even some evidence to support our positions, certainly more likely than what you'll find on, say, the Jim Rome show. But this time out, this column won't and can't do that. Quite simply, ESPN has turned into a completely unwatchable morass of utter drivel. ESPN has decided to "amp up" that thing which doesn't need it-sports. Why? Excellent question.

I purposefully avoided calling anyone at ESPN before writing this (I'm sure my phone will be ringing later today), but it appears from the outside that a few things appear to be true:

  1. ESPN's decided that any network can show sports highlights, bid on broadcasting contracts with the major sports, and generally be a hi-def portal to athletics. They have to be able to provide content to their customers that can't be easily copied. They also have to avoid over-reliance on the sports leagues, for fear of giving up excessive negotiation leverage. From a strategic standpoint, you don't want to have 55 percent of your revenue dependent on one sport, one revenue stream when it comes time to negotiate with that sport for a new five-year contract. That sort of thing can leave one bleary-eyed for a year or so after the deal's signed.
  2. ESPN's brass has lost all faith in sports as drama. This I don't get, but it appears to be the case. The addition of music-video editing patterns, bad pseudo-metal soundtracks, and visual augmentation of highlights, and the cringe-worthy hip banter between anchors slightly too old to really be using urban lingo has made SportsCenter a test of endurance, not a destination on the dial.
  3. ESPN can't figure out what to do with the visual real estate available to it. This is actually a big issue, and one I want to address in a later column with some industry professionals. In short, it's a very big issue, and one where I think not only ESPN but most sports television producers are vulnerable. On ESPN in general, across multiple programs, they're not just wasting the available space now available through hi-def, they're actually using it to actively degrade the viewer experience. Watching Baseball Tonight to find out how that Indians/Yankees game went? Hey, no worries! Just as the 45-second coverage (with highlights) is building suspense about the outcome, the streamer at the bottom of the screen will happily inform you how the game turned out. It's kind of like some douche bag spoiling Memento for you, but on a small scale, and repeated over and over again, until you just want Joe Pesci to show up on the set with a ceramic garden gnome and defile the sanctity of Rich Eisen's skeletal structure with blows near the transverse processes. I won't go into the issues with sports video heavily focused on the bottom of the frame, where it's often obscured by said streamer. That's for another day.
  4. This is sort of a corollary to my first point, but like MTV before it, ESPN seems to be convinced that the hype around the core of the offering is of more utility than the core offering itself. I mean, who the hell came up with "Who's Now?", and why weren't they summarily beaten with a big-ass sack of oranges? And why didn't one of the "talent" speak up and say "You must be joking, right? I'm not doing that crap." If, before, anyone had even grudging respect for Stuart Scott and all the unindicted co-conspirators who served on the panels, I hope you've had the good sense to write them off as the empty and fungible vessels they are. Admit it-it'd be pretty cool to have the anchors off-camera, doing a voice over of what comes up on the teleprompter, and have a turnip, motionless, on the anchor desk. Would the viewer experience be worse? What percentage of the audience would comment that Scott Van Pelt "looks a little jaundiced this evening"?

Does my channeling of Andy Rooney have a point? Sort of. For all intents and purposes, MLB enters into a huge number of partnerships to create products. Far more people will see games on TV, radio, and online than will attend them in person. Each channel of distribution is really a different product, with different positioning, pricing, features, and target audiences. We consume baseball as a product across several platforms, and the platforms have different strengths and weaknesses. There's nothing better while driving than listening to a close ballgame on the radio. Online, it's nice to occasionally switch to the video from time to time, while catching the audio and working on that presentation that's due next week. In bed with a summer cold with the house empty? A leisurely paced baseball game, with perhaps a golf tournament to switch to during commercials, is a fantastic tonic. Some games are best enjoyed alone, others in a loud bar filled with screaming maniacs. Different products, different ways to enjoy them. For now, at least until Bob Bowman and the MLBAM team vertically integrate the whole deal, MLB has to work with partners to create those products.

Products are fairly difficult to develop well under the best of circumstances. When you add in the complexity of multiple partners, usually with divergent goals and varying levels of competence and ethics, it gets unbelievably hard. Ask Dr. Z and the good folks at the former DaimlerChrysler. It's a testament to baseball's inherent superamazingwonderfulality that the product portfolio of MLB is so uniformly excellent.

Which makes me wonder how ESPN can miss opportunities with it on a regular basis. It's not just hiring Joe Morgan, or thinking that Buster Olney is somehow adequate as a commentator. It's missing opportunities, like not driving the 'agenda' of baseball. It's using the same damn camera angles that have been used for half a century, even though those original angles were chosen for really strange reasons, like "it's the only place we can get the electricity to run the camera." It's retreading the same old clichés over and over again, when they serve no purpose other than to be the sawdust that stretches the ground beef. ESPN has the money, the creative talent, the negotiating clout, and the public mindshare to really do something great. Something innovative. Something that will genuinely enhance the viewer experience, instead of making excuses for the very products it develops and sells.

Here's hoping that they don't continue to fall into traps like "Who's Now," and instead start taking some real chances, like emphasizing the quality and the dignity of the competition on the field. This isn't bowling, and it's not another premature presidential debate-it's baseball. Get out of its way, and let it take center stage. There's a reason why the game has been so resilient-it's not simply one of the best sports, it is the best sport. It deserves better.

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

Related Content:  Mlb The Show,  The Who,  Products,  Espn,  Visual

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