Baseball Tonight: The End of an Era

 

What does the end of an era tell us about the future of our pastime?

On Wednesday, April 26, 2017, news broke that a record number of ESPN staffers had been notified by telephone that they were no longer employees at the worldwide leader. While the sheer volume of layoffs caught us off-guard, news that the sports and entertainment media giant was considering a new direction for the company had been circulating since 2016 when it was reported that customers were cancelling their ESPN cable subscriptions at an alarming rate.

And just as no specific sector appeared immune to the massive network shakeup, the team of staffers covering Major League Baseball for ESPN proved to be one of the areas hardest hit by layoffs once the numbers had finally been tallied. Jayson Stark, Doug Padilla, Dallas Braden, and Doug Glanville were but a handful of the reported casualties who once comprised the network’s team of baseball reporters and analysts, but perhaps most shocking was the announcement that Baseball Tonight would no longer be a featured part of ESPN’s daily programming. Instead, it was revealed that the popular network mainstay, which provided in-season MLB coverage and analysis for an unprecedented 27 years, would now be aired exclusively as a lead-in to the ESPN national game of the week on Sunday evenings.

Baseball Tonight achieved its biggest success in the mid 90’s when ESPN acquired the rights from MLB to provide in-progress coverage for its nightly slate of baseball games. Before there was ESPN Gamecast, or MLB At-Bat mobile apps, most baseball fans were at the mercy of their local news program for that night’s game results. Baseball Tonight was also a welcome departure from the standard Sportscenter “15-second highlight and dump it to Steve Levy for a Buffalo Sabers update” format for baseball fans, as it provided an hour long platform ripe for detailed analysis from the likes of Peter Gammons or Tim Kurkjian.

The decision to significantly reduce the role of Baseball Tonight in the network’s programming schedule was an outlier announcement for ESPN, with no parallel changes planned for NFL or NBA content. By comparison, most of the layoffs within ESPN’s NFL and NBA coverage appear to have been made to support a focus on digital content that prioritizes visual media over print. ESPN’s NBA coverage, for example, will now be without industry standouts like TrueHoop pioneer Henry Abbott, Senior Writer Marc Stein, and Warriors’ beat writer Ethan Sherwood-Strauss, while other TV and Radio personalities like Rachel Nichols, Cassidy Hubbarth, and Ryen Russillo are already seeing increased rolls as part of ESPN’s NBA coverage. ESPN’s unprecedented investment into live network rights for both leagues ($15.2 billion for the NFL, $24 Billion for the NBA) only further propagates where the network will focus its content engine moving forward.

ESPN may be showing its hand as far as its baseball plans go, but Major League Baseball is still surviving on other national and regional networks, including around the clock coverage on MLB Network. But what does this news mean for the sport on a macro-level? Does ESPN’s cancellation of Baseball Tonight and subsequent reduction in the network’s coverage of the sport reflect a shift in how baseball fits into the larger collective sports culture in America?

. . .

Like most kids growing up in the 80’s and 90’s, I began my foray into the world of youth sports by wrapping my Wilson Genuine Leather A2000 baseball glove (with Greg Maddux replica signature in the palm) in rubber bands and slipping it underneath my mattress before bed. Situated halfway between New York City and Philadelphia, and just far enough away from both markets that we didn’t have access to eithers’ regional television network, I settled for a decade of dominant Atlanta Braves pitching (and the middle infield partnership of Jeff Blauser and Mark Lemke) on TBS. Once my friends and I were old enough to have free reign of the neighborhood, we spent our summers at the local schoolyard playing baseball each and every afternoon, and eventually, it became Little League Baseball (Kingston District-16 1997 Champions, stand up!)

It wasn’t until after we all turned 12 and Little League ended that most of us showed interest in sports outside of baseball. I grew up when athletes like Michael Jordan, Joe Montana, Jerry Rice, and Barry Sanders were in the primes of their careers, but in 1997, I was more interested in Mark McGuire, Pedro Martinez, and Barry Bonds – and I’d argue that mine was an experience shared by most kids at that time.

So what changed? Why, in 2017, is a sport celebrated as the great American pastime being reported to have difficulty landing viewership and support from the most important age demographic?

For years, we’ve been hearing that baseball is falling out of favor with American audiences, and while the media has undoubtedly taken creative license with how some of the facts are presented, there are several warning signs that have already caught the attention of league representatives.

Reported declines in financial performance and television viewership, however, are NOT any of them. It is so often misreported that baseball is failing financially, evidenced by declining attendance and markedly less interest from major national TV networks like ESPN and Fox for live rights – at least nothing remotely comparable to the money they shell out for NFL and NBA rights. But the MLB has never been advertised nor consumed exactly like the other professional sports in America – a point often neglected when we measure what factors, exactly, determine financial success – so why do we continue to aggregate and compare them like they are?

Major League Baseball is currently in the midst of an eight-year national media rights agreement with FOX and TBS, while ESPN pays approximately $700 million to MLB per year through 2021 (compared to the $1.9 billion annual payment they make to the NFL for Monday Night Football). But we must also consider the changing landscape of baseball and television over the years to understand what these numbers really mean.

According to a report by Forbes, an average of 148 games (91% of a team’s schedule) aired on regional sports networks last season. Moreover, of the 30 teams in Major League Baseball, eleven – more than one-third of the league – had the highest-rated, most-watched local programming in prime time on both broadcast and cable. And overall, 17 MLB teams – over half the league – rank in the top 3 in local prime time (7p-11p) TV ratings on their respective RSNs. So, the question is, is baseball interest lowering nationally, or growing vastly at the regional level? An AP story also noted:

“All of those numbers have made the regional sports networks more valuable to cable and satellite providers. And because each channel makes much of its revenue from fees those providers pay to carry it, the audience demographics don’t affect profits in the way they do for the traditional broadcast networks, which rely more on advertisers who want to reach younger viewers. In other words, baseball’s older viewership is less of a problem for regional sports networks.”

So while the infographic may in fact be accurate when it tells you that national networks are not exactly breaking the bank to acquire MLB coverage, it also fails to inform that in 2016 alone, the Los Angeles Dodgers made $204 million from their local tv deal. Likewise, the Angels were on the receiving end of $118 million, with the Yankees and Red Sox each earning $98 million and $80 million, respectively. It simply doesn’t make sense to continue comparing baseball to other sports using national television network ratings and broadcast fees when most fans are watching their home teams on local networks instead – and the teams are benefiting.

Another popular talking point suggests that a decline in participation in baseball at the youth level is to blame.  “Baseball has lost kids playing the game, and with it, those kids don’t grow up watching Major League Baseball,” the argument goes.

But according to the head offices of Little League, approximately 2 million kids play youth baseball, and that number has held steady for the last 5 years. By comparison, Pop Warner football has seen a decline in participation, largely due to concerns around head and neck injuries that has become a key concern for the NFL. An ESPN Outside the Lines investigation reported the following:

“According to data provided to “Outside the Lines,” Pop Warner lost 23,612 players, thought to be the largest two-year decline since the organization began keeping statistics decades ago. Consistent annual growth led to a record 248,899 players participating in Pop Warner in 2010; that figure fell to 225,287 by the 2012 season.”

Just to be clear: The record for Pop Warner was 248,899, or roughly 12 percent of the total number of kids enrolled in Little League at this point. And yet, by measure of national television ratings, and per-game average attendance, the NFL sees astronomical numbers.

And finally, there’s this: According to a report by the Sports & Fitness Industry Association, over 10 million people (age 13+) engaged in bowling in the United States in 2013. Yes. Bowling. So, ask yourself, other than the brief 25 seconds on Sunday afternoons in November when you forget to change the channel from ESPN’s pregame coverage to CBS or FOX for the early slate of NFL games, when else have you found yourself watching televised bowling? Let’s be clear: The popularity of a sport at its highest levels is not dictated by participation at youth levels.

So what exactly does Major League Baseball have to worry about then? For starters, while the MLB might not have a problem with the number of viewers, they should be concerned over who is participating. For baseball, the most alarming viewership statistic involves the actual age demographics of its fanbase. Leagues like the NBA (62%), NFL (54%), MLS (60%), and NHL (63%) all report strong viewership numbers between the coveted 18-54 age demographic according to sports marketing company Opendorse. However, MLB reports that only 43% of its viewers fall within this category, with an astounding 50% of its viewers over age 55. Although MLB is still reporting consistently strong overall viewership numbers, league officials should be losing sleep over the weak showing in their 18-54 demo. If nothing else, it foreshadows trouble on the horizon when generational viewership continues to turn over.

Additionally, MLB Network’s Brian Kenny recently suggested that he doesn’t subscribe to the “decline in baseball” storyline, although he does believe the sport hasn’t been doing itself any favors in alienating parts its fanbase over the past 20 seasons. Speaking to The Ringer’s Bryan Curtis in May, he pointed to a divide in the language and practices being used to analyze the game as a contributing factor. Kenny recalled a point in 1999 while he was working with Baseball Tonight when a small pocket of sports writers and baseball analysts began using alternate metrics for measuring player and team performance. This group started pushing metrics like WHIP and Slugging%, and began using them on national broadcasts, isolating fans who were still entrenched in traditional stats like Home Runs, RBI, and Batting Average. Over the years, those metrics have extended to the likes of VORP, WAR, Exit Velocity, and Launch Angle, creating a potential rift between multiple generations of fans who were now consuming the sport using different languages entirely. Players were stepping to the plate during a nationally televised game, and the graphic would report conventional statistics that were being disregarded by the baseball writers months later during awards season.

In 2010, for example, Felix Hernandez won the AL Cy Young Award with a relatively unimpressive 13-12 W/L record – a defining statistic in determining the award throughout history. In most years, a 20-win season was the prerequisite for a pitcher to be considered for the award. But on this occasion, the writers were acknowledging that Hernandez received historically low run support from his offense that year, while still leading the league in many other advanced statistical categories. In the previous year, Zack Greinke and Tim Lincecum took home the AL and NL Cy Young Awards, despite recording just 16 and 15 win seasons, respectively, further highlighting the start of a strange new world for many long-time traditionalists.

And yet, I still don’t believe that either of these points are working against the long-term success of the league in the same way that its lack of recognizable superstar names is. Listen, I get it – Mike Trout, Bryce Harper, Aaron Judge, Clayton Kershaw, Giancarlo Stanton, and the list of tremendous talents goes on and on – but the biggest names in baseball are not anywhere close to the biggest names in American sports, and that is a big problem when it comes to marketing your sport to new fans – especially within the younger demographic MLB should be trying to target.

Take the following statistics from ESPN’s 2017 World Fame 100 list, which is a measure of the most famous athletes on the planet. The formula created to compile the list utilized a combination of endorsements, social media following, and internet search popularity to rank the world’s most popular athletes. Firstly, 8 NFL players, 13 NBA players, 38 soccer players, 10 tennis stars, and 11 golfers made the list. Other sports that received representation in the Top 100 included MMA, Auto Racing, Table Tennis, Badminton, Swimming, Gymnastics, Boxing, and Cricket. If you were wondering how far down the list you would have to read before you got to the first baseball player, you would need to scan the entire list, go back to the top and read the list again to make sure you didn’t miss anyone, and finally sit back and wonder how Major League Baseball could conceivably receive the same representation as MTV’s The Challenge participants.

Let’s be clear: Major League Baseball is in a good place. The majority of its proponents would most likely not vote to change a thing – whether or not this is the response of an aging traditionalist fanbase is another story. But, if Major League Baseball is ever going to challenge the NFL and NBA in America for popularity amongst the core age demographic, someone needs to figure out how to get its athletes on that damn World Fame 100 list ASAP – or perhaps easier – figure out what it might take to get Badminton Star Lin Dan off of it.

 

Dave is the Creator and Editor-in-Chief for The Benchmob. He primarily writes about Soccer, the NBA, esports, and Pop-Culture.