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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