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Does MLB need ESPN for its future? While We’re Waiting

Patrick Farrell / Miami Herald

The Major League Baseball All-Star Break is always a topical time to discuss the business side of the sport. All of the league’s top players just assembled for several days in Miami, where the franchise itself is on the verge of being sold, so a ton of discussions are revolving around the league’s financial health. And that almost always leads back to star power.

This year, 25-year-old rookie giant Aaron Judge of the New York Yankees cemented his rise to national prominence by winning Monday’s Home Run Derby. Judge, who leads baseball with 30 home runs, has an outgoing personality that matches his 6-foot-7 stature and plays for the sport’s most popular team. If the league could’ve sculpted the perfect player for marketing purposes, Judge might’ve been darn close.

Yet it was somewhat controversial when MLB Commission Rob Manfred declared that Judge is a kind of player “who can become the face of the game.” What does that say about the sport that a player with only 111 career games played can already surpass so many other more proven stars in marketability?

ESPN’s Jayson Stark wrote a large feature in April asking where have all the superstars gone from MLB. In the ‘90s and early 2000s, players like Derek Jeter and Ken Griffey Jr. were household names. The Mark McGwire-Sammy Sosa home run chase was the biggest news in sports. But it just feels drastically different now.

One big reason is that, over time, baseball has become a more regionalized sport. Blame the grueling 162-game schedule, baseball’s lack of meme-busting highlights, or the complicated rules that haven’t caught on well in Europe or China. Ask a casual sports fan this question: How many non-local players could they name in the respective major leagues? It’s likely the number will be much greater in the NFL (because of fantasy football) or the NBA (because of the proximity to the players and its international appeal) than in MLB.

Mike Trout, who missed this year’s All-Star Game with a thumb injury but is expected to return this week, is by far the biggest superstar on paper. Despite being only eight months older than Judge, Trout already has 858 games of record-breaking success. He has two MVPs, three runner-up finishes, and can do literally everything there is to do as an outfielder. Yet he’s still a mystery man.

For The Win’s Ted Berg tried to theorize why very few non baseball fanatics know much about Trout. He’s less of a natural outgoing spokesperson than Judge. But shouldn’t on-field dominance trump market size to some degree? Shouldn’t all of the sports networks be talking about Trout this, Trout that on a regular basis?

Which brings us over to ESPN and the crux of this blog post today. MLB’s new TV deals, signed in late 2012 with ESPN, Fox Sports and Turner, runs from 2014-to-2021 and hauls in $1.5 billion per year. This annual revenue doubled the previous compilation of deals that brought in just over $710 million annually.

(For context, the NBA’s new deal goes through the 2024-25 season and pays out $2.6 billion annually. This was previously $900 million per year in the last league-wide deal. Meanwhile, the NFL reigns supreme with around $7 billion in annual media money through 2021. The previous arrangement brought in $3 billion.)

Yet, as a June 2017 SportsBusiness Journal study showed, MLB’s TV audience is getting older and older. The average age of an MLB TV viewer was 57 in 2016, by far the oldest of the major sports leagues and an increase from 52 in 2006. And only 7 percent of viewers are ages 17 or younger, also the worst number of the major pro leagues.

Given the decline of ESPN’s subscriptions over recent years and months, and one could jump to the conclusion of MLB potentially being on the chopping block when its TV deal expires in 2021. That’s exactly what media and tech analyst Rich Greenfield surmised recently, as summarized by Barron’s. Is it possible that ESPN may cut down its commitment to MLB to continue to afford the NFL?

Let’s try to then imagine a world where baseball is no longer on ESPN at all. Heck, folks on Twitter have already pointed out that ESPN’s main account has tweeted more about NBA Summer League than MLB regular season action this July. In a world where ESPN doesn’t carry any MLB games, would it cut down on its writing staff, TV highlights and all-around baseball content production? And wouldn’t that exacerbate the loss of superstar power marketability for the league?

Sure, other options will appear for MLB to make some billion-dollar range media dollars. If ESPN drops from the fold, then Fox Sports and Turner will likely have the ability to amp up their baseball commitments. (Although Fox Sports reduced its online writing staff anyway and ace reporter Ken Rosenthal doesn’t have a place to publish his content.) It’s possible that Amazon, Google, Netflix and other web properties could jump into the fold by then, as well.

So, as the sport exits the All-Star Break and looks at the second half of the schedule, these are the kinds of topics that are likely dominating conversations for owners and league executives. How can they improve the marketability of the game’s best players? How can they show value for their media partners? And how drastically will the landscape continue to change by the time 2021 arrives?

Without ESPN, one could see how MLB’s weaknesses may amplify in today’s media environment. But time still is on the league’s side to figure out a solution and see how they can get the message out about the sport in the best way possible. It’s not an easy task.

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  • RGB

    https://i.imgflip.com/1sfk7z.jpg

    I have no idea why this guy sticks in my brain.

  • RGB

    Baseball is America’s pastime.
    It passes the time until football.

  • MartyDaVille

    Unfortunately, when sports leagues take steps to make their game better, they most often make it worse — e.g., Thursday night football, the interminable NBA regular season followed by the interminable playoffs, World Series games that end past midnight, etc. etc. etc. (Wouldn’t you love to watch a Saturday and Sunday WS game that started at 1:30 p.m.? I would love it. Baseball can use the excuse that they’re afraid of competing with football, but football is on at night too.)

  • jpftribe

    Speaking of ludicrous sports media conglomerates… Ripken in the booth, Swisher in the studio and Rosenthal posting columns to facebook, Fox Sports…..
    https://media.giphy.com/media/AMGW8QmLMmZ8I/giphy.gif

  • Chris
  • jpftribe

    Herman, love it.

  • Chris

    “In a world where ESPN doesn’t carry any MLB games, would it cut down on its writing staff, TV highlights and all-around baseball content production?”

    Case in point… NHL.

  • Can you imagine day drinking with friends on a Saturday, watching a World Series game?!?!?!

  • MartyDaVille

    If my memory is correct (and it might not be), Fontenot was stuffed at the line on 3rd and 2 in OT of The Drive game. Browns punted, Broncos moved the ball and kicked the winning FG.

    A little shout-out to DB Ron Bolton, who scored the Browns only TD on a 42-yard pick in the Red Right 88 game.

    https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/d92d094f55194fe29ad2f423192794b71350f5639849922d831e8cd75d1e14b5.jpg

  • RGB

    I almost used him, but every decent pic of him was either A) From the Red-Right-88 game or, B) With the guy I’m going to use tomorrow.

  • MartyDaVille

    Oh, sorry about the Red Right 88 reminder. Too soon?

  • RGB

    I’m trying to minimize pics from the pain games. I think Brian Brennan has been my only notable exception.

  • BenRM

    Perhaps I’m wrong, but isn’t this just a story of two declining super powers? The MLB, for reasons we can all argue over, is at best the 3rd most popular professional sports league. And ESPN, for reasons we can all argue over, has been steadily declining in influence and importance.

    Neither are probably going anywhere. But I certainly don’t think they “need” each other. They may even be better off going their separate ways at the end of the deal.

  • RGB

    Unless the Tribe is involved, nope.

  • Harv

    in a lot of peoples’ brains. Guessing because it was the last memorable era, and in those offenses he was given sporadic opportunity to make plays on Bernie check-downs or Lindy’s clever misdirections. But objectively? Was certainly less talented than Duke Johnson, who hasn’t done much on this poor team. I mostly remember Fontenot valiantly trying to hold blitzers at bay. Sometimes he did. Often Bernie, Pagel and Strock limped back to the huddle with virtual tweetie birds hovering.

  • Chris

    1:30 would be fun out here although it might force west coast sports bars to expand their brunch menus a bit.

    You know that “they” say… you can’t drink all day if you don’t start in the morning.

  • Harv

    Forty years ago when the game was more popular the game was objectively faster and eminently more watchable. Mike Hargrove was deemed “The Human Rain Delay” for a between-pitch ritual that took less time than virtually most modern batters. The dual strolling of pitcher and hitter during an at-bat wasn’t tolerated. Yet in the era of shortening attention spans baseball seems impotent to adjust.

    Speeding the game up now may be too late to appeal to the younger demographic; how often do we see kids playing pick-up games? But the players’ self-indulgent rituals and daily 3 hour games have increasingly turned off even geezers like me. Manfred can take some unilateral action this off-season, and he should if he wants to slow the fan drainage.

  • jpftribe

    As pointed out, Amazon or Twitter would probably go after broadcast
    rights pretty hard. Intel is already investing in VR broadcasts. A good
    article came out today on the NY Post to implement the pitch clock, that
    will eventually happen.

    If ESPN decides it doesn’t need to be the world wide leader in sports, someone will step in to fill the void. Moneyball has made the economics work today, much more so than Euro football, for instance.

  • mgbode

    It is such a conflict of interest to be carrying the games & covering them.

  • mgbode

    MLB has seemed to be preparing for the split too. Big moves in recent years in streaming, in GIF, even in allowance of others to utilize.

  • RGB
  • nj0

    It doesn’t help Trout that he plays for the Angels, Shemp Howard to the Dodger’s Curly. The Angels have been dependably mediocre during Trout’s time there too, minus the blip where they nearly won a 100 games and then proceeded to get swept in the divisional series.

    To be a star in MLB, first be really good on-the-field. Then 1.) play for a major franchise, 2.) win/play in several World Series over a short span of time, and/or 3.) have a lot of natural charisma. Jeter checked all those boxes. McGwire went to three World Series in a row. Griffey was Griffey. Trout? None so far.

  • nj0

    Personally, I don’t think the time between pitches is the major cause for three hours games, but it’s definitely a contributing factor. The biggest issue is the use of more relief pitchers (which isn’t going away).

    Baseball needs to address the general lack of urgency around the entirety of the game, not just the batter/pitcher interaction. Sure, put a clock on them, but also put one on the defense to resume play after a ball in play, on the runner calling time after sliding back to the bag after a pick-off attempt, on the pitching coach strolling to the mound…. So much dead time. I’m getting bored just thinking about it.

  • MartyDaVille

    Yep. Anaheim: Where Pujols’ fame went to die.

  • nj0

    MLB isn’t in decline. I’d argue they were ahead of the curve. MLB has been slowly inching away from the national TV model. They’ve embraced local broadcasting deals, unlike the NFL, meaning they’re not as dependent on the health of ESPN, CBS, etc. It looks like decline because it’s not the traditional way of doing things and their national exposure (the established way of evaluating these things) is down. But they’re still making tons of money and selling tons of tickets.

    Some quick numbers: The estimated annual revenue for local broadcasting rights (all 30 MLB teams) is $1.68 billion. Their deal with ESPN, FOX, and TNT is for about $1.55 billion. That’s $3.23 billion from broadcast. NFL’s is getting between $1.93B-$3.1B annually over the life of their TV deals (ending in 2022).

  • nj0

    None of those are really steps to make the game better. They’re steps to make more money.

  • jpftribe

    I don’t know about that. The minor league games I’ve been to fly by compared to Indians games. Pitch clock makes a big difference. And guys like Verlander should be neutered for dragging games out. Horrible to watch.

  • nj0

    You may be right. The pitch clock seems like the easiest way to police slow play and speed up the game. I just hope it’s coupled with a general push to do the same in other areas of play too. There needs to be a consistent message that wasting time anywhere in the game will not be tolerated like it has been in the past.

  • mgbode

    Going to Triple-A games, the clock does change the pace even though it rarely even gets down that close. It is more the fact it is there puts an impetus on everyone to be aware.

    Now, add computerized balls-n-strikes to take away dead time complaints & speed up the rate of reviews… I think we’re onto something here.

  • Garry_Owen

    And it’s appreciated.

  • nj0

    I came across this great page on Baseball Reference (what can’t you do, B-R?).

    http://www.baseball-reference.com/leagues/MLB/misc.shtml

    Adding one more pitch per team per game from ’92 to ’16 added ten minutes to the game. Think that say It’s an issue, but not the real cause behind the length of games. So I was wrong on that point. I still think MLB allows for a LOT of wasted time on-field outside of batting/pitching.

  • tsm

    You are correct. Typical Marty being too conservative. I wanted to see Bernie fake the handoff and then hit Webster or Brennan on a slant for a TD. Not that I am bitter or anything.

  • mgbode

    no doubt they do. the batting/pitching portion just sort of sets the tone for everything else.

  • Steve

    Rosenthal writing articles doesn’t make much money. Video ads reign supreme over text ads.

  • Steve

    The issue with pitch clocks is that the players feel taking their time helps them. They aren’t going to agree without getting something valuable in return. And if it costs the owners money, a pitch clock seems very unlikely to me.

  • Steve

    If he could still hit.

  • nj0

    Yep. Marvin Miller’s ghost still haunts the halls of league office.

  • Steve

    Hard to say that the game was more popular. It held a larger percentage of the total interest in sports, but everything is up. Attendance, tv viewers, revenue.

    I’m not sold that slow games are hurting the league.

  • Steve

    Well, at this point, Miller should be turning over in his grave. Percentage of revenue going to players has dropped significantly over the past 25 years. And with more and more money coming from TV, the owners have a much more stable source of income, making them more immune to any strikes. I think its only going to get worse for the players.

  • Jolinejmalone

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  • scripty

    The MLB average game is up 32 minutes from 1977. Approximately 18 of those minutes are due to increased ad inventory between innings. So you have 14 more minutes, and you haven’t gotten gotten to the 1-2 extra relivers per game. So pace of game is maybe 10-12 minutes of a longer game. We know pitches per at bat is longer.

    Sorry, but the game speed is really just 10 minutes longer than 40 years ago. People have completely fabricated the issue with the longer games.

  • scripty

    The increased length of game is 75% related to increased media ad inventory. We have more pitches per game and usually an extra reliver per game than 30-40 years ago. The actual time of play is just 10-11 minutes longer on average.

    I could go on at great length about the complete botching of this discussion.

  • Brittanykrodriguez

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