Labor strife in other sports paves way for baseball to grow

Baseball gains globally

Amid plummeting ratings and the growth of other sports, most spectacularly football, baseball was downgraded years ago as America’s national pastime. But now with labor unrest threatening the fall seasons in both the NFL and basketball’s NBA, combined with an increased profile for Major League Baseball across platforms that include broadcast, cable and online, the sport seems poised for a renaissance.

“Advertisers buy their yearly schedule in May. With the prospect of no NFL or NBA in the fall, a lot of that money is going to MLB and college football,” SportsBusiness Journal media reporter John Ourand says.

The sport got off to a good start on the ratings front this month, with ESPN showing gains, led by its Sunday night telecast of the Boston Red Sox against the New York Yankees on April 10, which drew 4.7 million viewers — the cabler’s largest aud for the sport since August 2009.

For ESPN and other national broadcast partners Fox and TBS, and baseball’s own MLB Network, the sport provides a steady stream of programming over the summer. Fox, ESPN and TBS combine to air five national games per week, and the MLB net airs games on Thursday and Saturday, something it has done since 2009.

As digital video recorders have made their way into more than 40% of homes nationally, live viewing is more important than ever to advertisers, who pay a premium to reach auds less inclined to fast-forward through commercials. And sports in particular, Ourand notes, delivers hard-to-reach young men better than any other programming.

Fox pays approximately $257 million annually for its broadcast lineup of Saturday afternoon games during the regular season, as well as postseason and World Series rights. TBS forks over $104 million a year for exclusive rights to MLB’s League Division Series, one of the League Championship Series plus 26 non-exclusive, regular-season Sunday afternoon games. Both networks are in the midst of seven-year deals that end after the 2013 season.

ESPN ponies up some $288 million yearly for the rights to cablecast weekly games on Monday, Wednesday and Sunday nights in an eight-year deal that also ends in 2013. In 2008, the sports cabler expanded its agreement to add digital live-game streaming and highlights packages on its ESPN360.com Internet site and mobile platforms. The deal allows ESPN to use MLB content on download services like Apple’s iTunes Store and console game systems like Microsoft Xbox Live.

But while baseball is acknowledged as a trendsetter in nontraditional platforms, the sport hasn’t always been hitting it out of the park ratleast when the Yankees and Red Sox aren’t renewing their historic rivalry. Last year, viewership for Fox was flat, ESPN’s “Sunday Night Baseball” fell 12% and TBS’ ratings were off 11%.

Yet in the era of niche programming, representatives from baseball’s broadcast and cable partners all say they’re upbeat about the current season. Ad sales are brisk, with ESPN, Fox and MLB Network all pacing above where they were entering the 2010 season.

“We’re seeing good demand with our ad inventory for the regular season, the All-Star Game and the upcoming postseason,” Fox Sports prexy Eric Shanks says.

In 2010, Fox showed two regular-season games in primetime Saturday, and those averaged a rating nearly 50% higher than its typical afternoon MLB telecasts. The network is adding at least one more primetime date during this year’s regular season, and frequently offers three different regional games each Saturday to maximize interest across the country.

“Regular season is a solid performer,” Shanks says. “The additional games in primetime will give us a boost in the ratings.”

Fox’s World Series broadcasts included the top-rated program in last year’s fourth quarter among men 18-49 and 25-54, despite a midmarket matchup between San Francisco and Texas that was ultimately one-sided. And the All-Star Game was summer’s top-rated program.

And it will certainly help all the television partners if major-market teams like the Red Sox, Yankees, Phillies and Giants perform as well as expected (though the Red Sox so far are off to a slow start).

ESPN has made a concerted effort to revitalize its coverage of baseball in this, its 22nd season with MLB games. Dan Shulman, Orel Hershiser and Bobby Valentine replace Jon Miller and Joe Morgan as the main announcing team on “Sunday Night Baseball,” with Sean McDonough swapped in for Shulman on Mondays, and Nomar Garciaparra added as a color commentator Wednesdays.

Jed Drake, senior veep and executive producer of production for the cabler’s baseball programming, is back from a year-long commitment to the World Cup, while production VP Mike McQuade is now covering MLB and handles much of the day-to-day responsibilities.

“We’re very bullish on MLB entering the season,” says ESPN programming VP Mike Ryan.

Meanwhile, MLB Network, which launched on Jan. 1, 2009, is increasing its live regular-season broadcasts to more than 100 this year, including a frequent Tuesday doubleheader to provide more exposure for West Coast teams and to inject more game coverage into its mix of pre-recorded features and highlights shows. To prime the pump, it’s airing a run of 30 games featuring all 30 MLB teams Tuesdays though Saturdays in April.

“Over the past two years, we’ve really seen the value of live programming,” MLB Network prexy/CEO Tony Petitti says. “When you’re a single-sports network, such as we are, (it’s) a real difference-maker.”

Some wonder whether MLB Network’s rising live coverage will undermine MLB’s ability to increase rights fees with their national broadcast partners when contracts expire, but Ourand doesn’t think that will be an issue.

“Rights fees are increasing across the board for every sport,” he says. “Because of the amount of programming baseball produces (all summer against little competition) and the presence of new potential bidders (such as FX, Versus and TruTV), the market for rights holders has never been bigger — regardless of what the league decides to put on its network.”

The sport’s eponymous network has grown in cable carriage thanks to an innovative deal requiring carriers that want MLB’s on-demand Extra Innings package to offer the MLB Network on its basic tier. Last month, MLB completed a deal with telco ATT U-Verse.

While MLB faces expiration of its own collective bargaining agreement in December, there are few clouds on the horizon, as owners and players seem likely to continue their unusually lengthy period of accord.

So come the end of summer, when the NFL and NBA may wonder where their next game is coming from, baseball could once again be front and center on the smallscreen.

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