Baseball finally gets it right

Ross D. Franklin, Associated Press
Ross D. Franklin, Associated Press

In the book, “Bottom of the Ninth: Branch Rickey, Casey Stengel, and the Daring Scheme to Save Baseball from Itself” by Michael Shapiro, the author explains the history of baseball with a focus on the 1960s era when the National Football League (NFL) began its expanse into the American mindset taking away from the prominence of America’s pastime, baseball.

The book is a great read for those interested in the path and growth of the NFL and Major League Baseball (MLB) into where the industry stands today.  It is also a wonderful collection of stories on the characters in baseball like manager Casey Stengel and general managers like Branch Rickey.  Iconic figures in their own right. 

In a seemingly short, but very important article from The Hollywood Reporter, the focus is on the value of a broadcast television deal between the MLB and Turner Broadcasting System (TBS) at $3 billion dollars.  A large dollar figure and a significant increase in total value from years past continuing an upward trajectory of copyright value in licensing live sports broadcasts.  However, one point in the article struck a financial and business cord. 

TBS will be airing weekly national broadcasts on Tuesdays.  A weekly evening when no other major sports are broadcasted.  Previously, ESPN, TBS, and other networks have tried Sunday Night Baseball and Monday Night Baseball, but both of those days compete with NFL time and fans during the lead up to the baseball postseason in September and October.  Saturdays during the same time are dominated by college football viewership.  Why did it take so long for baseball to pick Tuesday to make it national stance?

The Shapiro book provides some insight.  Baseball had once been the national pastime when other sporting competition was nonexistent.  There were nationally broadcast games and then organized baseball then took the turn to become a regional game with individual baseball clubs signing local television broadcast deals, while the NFL signed national television deals along with national sponsorships.  

Football was also looking at signing up west coast teams via the start-up American Football League (AFL) like the Chargers and Raiders and eventually did bring those teams and others into the national broadcast model of the NFL.  Enter Branch Rickey, who attempted to get new clubs started in Houston, Denver, Los Angeles, Minnesota, and Toronto as a third professional baseball league to compliment the American and National Leagues on the MLB under a national broadcast model.  Eventually, the Houston Astros, Minnesota Twins, New York Mets, Toronto Blue Jays (est. 1977), and Los Angeles Angels (a farm team at the time) in the 1960s became clubs of the American and National Leagues of Major League Baseball.  Rickey’s attempted baseball expansion was through the Continental League.  The Continental League never played one game, but it would not be the end. 

Rickey’s model in the Continental League was one of national television contracts and exposure from the Pacific to the Atlantic oceans.  The NFL took notice and copied the model.  Major League Baseball did not.   

TBS’s move to create a national weekly television event when only baseball is the major sport on television for more than just Atlanta Braves baseball (a traditional broadcast partners for the Braves franchise) is one that follows the Rickey and NFL model.  TBS/Turner Sports will also be adding additional digital content on apps (e.g., Bleacher Report), which also reaches a national audience.  With more American’s spending time at home during a pandemic, there are high expectations for viewership numbers.  Of course, baseball plays a 162-game season versus 16-games in the NFL so attention spans have to stress less to watch the NFL, but the TBS Tuesday Night Baseball move is a step in the right direction to “nationalize” the game of baseball.  With WarnerMedia (e.g., HBO and AT&T) as the parent company of TBS, the national and international profile opportunities are expanded. Branch Rickey would be proud.

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