Should networks cash in or bail on Bonds?

When ESPN producers and talent gathered last month for their annual preseason baseball seminar, even old pros were concerned over how to deal with the Barry Bonds issue.

Broadcasters like Jon Miller continued to ask a question they first posed when the Balco scandal broke in 2005: “He asked (then), ‘How do I call (a Bonds homer)? Do I call it with doubt in my voice or do I call it as a home run?'” recalls Tim Scanlan, senior coordinating producer for ESPN.

With opening day weeks away, the Bonds issue is vexing the networks.

On the one hand, a legendary baseball player is closing in on what is perhaps sports’ most hallowed record: Hank Aaron’s career home run tally.

On the other hand, that same athlete faces questions of steroids, perjury and, most importantly for the nets, deepening fan resentment.

Do broadcasters treat Bonds with celebratory zeal, journalistic detachment or some muddled combination of the two? “It’s the most complicated issue to come along in a long time,” says a high-ranking sports exec.

Bonds enters this season with 734 homers, 22 shy of breaking Aaron’s 755.

That should have Fox and ESPN salivating.

Last year, when Bonds closed in on Babe Ruth’s 714 mark, ESPN regularly cut into other broadcasts to show a Bonds plate appearance.

And the Mark McGwire/ Sammy Sosa chase in 1998 of Roger Maris’ single-season record was a ratings bonanza

In a perfect world, Bonds’ quest would shatter those numbers and bring in record coin for the two nets, which hold national rights to regular-season games this year.

But baseball these days inhabits an imperfect world. The Balco investigation has heated up since ESPN’s hoopla about Bonds and Ruth last year; federal prosecutors in July seized medical records that could suggest Bonds used steroids and implicate him in a perjury scandal.

And fan backlash to the Giants slugger continues to intensify. A GQ poll ranked him as the second-most hated athlete in sports (behind Terrell Owens).

That leaves nets in a quandary: Sit back too much and they miss a big moneymaking opportunity. Push too hard and they risk alienating fans.

So Fox is reserving decisions on how to promote Bonds until the chase ratchets up.

“We’ll be gauging the public’s reaction as the season goes along,” says the net’s Lou D’Ermilio. “If we sense there’s a lack of interest, then we might not go as far out of the way in our coverage.” And if fan enthusiasm is there? “Then we go for it.”

ESPN, on the other hand, is trying to synthesize the two approaches. The net will use “every asset in our arsenal” on the chase, says senior veep of programming and acquisitions Len DeLuca.

But it is also hoping to leaven the quest with hard news. “It will be very different from 1998. It will be less celebratory and more reportorial,” Scanlan says. One change, he says, is more coverage of the record’s context.

Most strikingly, ESPN will take its cue from an unlikely group: the home crowd. “A Bonds home run will be reflective of the venue,” Scanlan says. “If he hits a home run in San Francisco, it will be called differently from the way it’s called in Philadelphia.”

Meanwhile, Major League Baseball has completely ducked the issue; commissioner Bud Selig hasn’t even decided whether to attend a potential record-breaking game.

Bonds’ quest — which, given that no one his age has ever hit more than 18 homers in a season, is hardly a shoo-in — has also set off a series of scheduling moves.

Betting the star won’t close in until later in the season, ESPN has held back on using the maximum of five Sunday Night Baseball slots it has for any team.

In the first two months, it will use only one on the Giants, a May 6 game against the Phillies, and only one of the three premium weekday slots it is allowed per team, for a May 29 game against the Mets.

For its part, Fox has assigned the Giants only seven of its nine slots for its regional Saturday coverage, saving two for a late-season Bonds run.

Of course, it’s in baseball’s interest for Bonds to start slow and keep the intrigue going all season; that will prolong the chance for a ratings spike.

Unfortunately, in yet another wrinkle, the nets that can benefit most may be constrained from campaigning for that spike. Says consultant Neal Pilson: “All of the suspicions rob both the broadcaster and the viewer of the joy of the chase. It just becomes a grim requirement to cover the story.”

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