Thursday, May 12, 2022

Baseball and Television

This is a preview of the Joe Sheehan Baseball Newsletter, an e-mail newsletter about all things baseball, featuring analysis and opinion about the game on and off the field from the perspective of the informed outsider. Joe Sheehan is a founding member of Baseball Prospectus and has been a contributor to Sports Illustrated and Baseball America. He has been writing about baseball for 25 years.

Your subscription gets you the newsletter and various related features two to five days a week, more than 150 mailings (more than 200,000 words) a year full of smart, fun baseball writing that you can't find in the mainstream. Subscribers can also access the new Slack workspace, to talk baseball with me and hundreds of other Newsletter subscribers.

You can subscribe to the newsletter for one year for $59.95 using your PayPal account or major credit card.


The Joe Sheehan Newsletter
Vol. 12, No. 104
December 9, 2020

It started a bit more than 80 years ago.

Oh, you can go back further if you want, back to Philo Farnsworth and Vladmir Zworykin and Kenjiro Takayanagi, developers of the technology we would come to know as “television.” For our purposes, though, it started on August 26, 1939, at Ebbets Field, with a doubleheader between the Reds and Dodgers. Those two games, less than four hours between them, called by the legendary Red Barber, were the first major-league ones sent over this new medium. 

It’s possible no one watched Bucky Walters go the distance in the Reds' win, nor Dolph Camilli have a big second game for the Dodgers. Television was still something of an experiment, the first sets having gone on sale in the U.S. just a few months prior to that late-summer ballgame. W2XBS, a predecessor of WNBC-TV, was broadcasting in fits and starts, airing some news, some sports -- including that Dodgers doubleheader -- some performing arts. Dick Vitale was born that summer, and Lily Tomlin, and Valerie Harper, three people who would eventually ride television into our homes and our hearts. 

The men who ran baseball were already aware of the value of their game to broadcasters, of course. The rights to cover the World Series on radio brought in $100,000 as early as 1933, despite the wariness of Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis. At the local level, though, the new technology was feared more than it was welcomed. Owners protected their attendance fiercely, and believed that radio broadcasts would undercut demand for tickets. In the ‘30s, the three New York City teams entered into an agreement that their home games could be aired over the radio, but not their road contests. As radio grew in popularity, though, the value of the broadcasts -- both in generating direct revenue and in promoting the team -- overcame the initial objections. 

It was a simple equation back then. A business would pay the team to be the sole sponsor of the broadcasts, which went out over the air for free. In return, the sponsor would interject advertising for its product into the broadcast. The ballgame brought people to the radio, a captive audience for the ad message. The players, the teams, the front office, the owners ... they didn’t have to do anything extra. The ads were worked into natural breaks in the game or, over time, folded into broadcasters' calls. By the time television arrived, radio had established the rules. 

Baseball would take advantage of those rules. Rights fees to air the World Series grew tenfold in the 1940s. Come the 1950s, ABC and then CBS paid to air a Game of the Week. Blackout rules kept these games from being true national telecasts, but in the cities where they did air, they were incredibly popular. At the local level, though, the old fears still carried the day. It wasn’t until 1965 that baseball allowed the Game of the Week to air in cities with MLB teams. Owners still guarded their gate receipts, still saw fans watching baseball on television not as potential customers, but lost ones. Their business was putting on baseball games in front of crowds, crowds that would buy tickets and beer and hot dogs, park in their lots, and return again and again. Television was an intrusion on that business model.

The sheer amount of money involved, however, was too much to ignore. When ABC began showing their weekly ballgame in 1953, less than half of all American households had a TV. A decade later, more than 90% did. Television was replacing radio in American living rooms, was replacing radio as the way American companies reached American consumers. By the mid-1960s, national TV contracts were bringing $6 million a year to baseball, and local broadcast deals generated a total of more than twice that

The tipping point in this story comes in 1967. For almost two decades, baseball was happy to take TV’s money without its input. The only concession was the way inning breaks lengthened a bit to allow for advertising. In 1939, when Barber called that doubleheader for W2XBS, the average game ran 2:06. Twenty years later, it was 2:34. For the most part, though, baseball operated the same way it had before the war: Owners were in the business of baseball, not the business of television.

In ’67, MLB played its All-Star Game in prime time for the first time, and it blew up. Half the televisions turned on in the country were tuned in to watch the NL beat the AL 2-1 in 15 innings. The 1968 All-Star Game, also played in prime time, drew similar numbers. When the 1969 game, played during the day due to a rainout, attracted half the audience of ’67 and ’68, the penny dropped. Bowie Kuhn went to NBC with the idea of moving a World Series game to prime time. On October 13, 1971, Game Four of the World Series was played under the lights of Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh. 

It’s something when you see how quickly it happened. As of October 12, 1971, there had never been a World Series night game. Since October 24, 1987, there has never been a World Series day game. It took 16 years for baseball to turn its crown jewel into just another television program. 

In 1971, MLB’s national television revenues were $16.5 million per year. 

In 1987, MLB’s national television revenues were $171 million per year.

MLB was no longer just in the business of baseball. It was also in the business of television.

That shift explains the decisions made over the following 30 years, and likely as not, every decision that will be made from this point forward. In 1990, MLB ended relationships with NBC and ABC stretching back decades to sign a four-year deal with CBS for $275 million a year. That deal, however, ended the Game of the Week; CBS broadcast just 12 regular-season games, squeezing them in on weekends between its NBA obligations in the spring and its football obligations in the fall. It was a deal designed by a television network, not a baseball league, dispensing with the regular exposure, the rhythms of that weekly showcase, because it wasn’t what the network needed.

It was also a spectacular failure. CBS lost hundreds of millions on the deal, burdened in part by having two World Series featuring just one U.S. team (the Blue Jays won the AL pennant in 1992 and 1993) and just six playoff games, in total, featuring teams from Los Angeles, New York, and Chicago. The contract was perceived to be such a disaster that baseball was unable to find an acceptable broadcast partner as it came to an end. In 1994 and 1995, it formed The Baseball Network in partnership with ABC and NBC, ended the broadcast national Game of the Week entirely, and, most notably, introduced realigned leagues and expanded playoffs.

Baseball was now thinking like a television executive: Create the kind of games TV likes, and toss the ones it doesn’t. Pennant races still drew some national attention, but you couldn’t rely on having them every year. An extra round of playoffs, though, was money in the bank. Literally. If it cheapened the regular season a bit, if it lowered the bar for success, if it meant a second-place team could win the World Series, well, that’s a baseball concern, not a television one. 

The first year under this plan was lost to the strike, but the second, in 1995, produced an epic five-game Division Series between the game’s biggest brand and the game’s biggest star. When Ken Griffey Jr. slid across home plate to defeat the Yankees in Game Five, it was great baseball, but more importantly, it was great television. So great, in fact, that it brought bidders back to the table: $1.4 billion over the next five years from Fox, NBC, and ESPN. What strike?

The numbers have only risen since then. From 2001-06, MLB brought in $650 million a year from ESPN and Fox. From 2012-19, that figure, with Turner now chipping in, was up to $1.5 billion a year. In part to address complaints about how the one-wild-card system affected competition, MLB added two playoff teams and set up one-game elimination rounds -- catnip for TV executives -- in each league. Again, any concerns as to how this would lower the quality of playoff teams were dismissed. It was about programming, not baseball.

The rise in rights fees wasn’t entirely about America returning to its first sports love, though. In fact, it had very little to do with baseball, the game, at all. The original animating relationship between sponsors, the audience, and broadcast content was falling apart. First VCRs, then DVRs, meant that television viewers could more readily ignore commercial breaks in their favorite shows. Pay-cable channels, which first broadcast Hollywood -- and lesser studios -- movies, began to produce commercial-free shows of their own, dragging eyeballs away from the broadcast networks. As high-speed Internet access became commonplace, Americans looked away from their televisions entirely in favor of web content. When people wanted to laugh or cry or get lost in a show, they had options their parents could not have dreamed of.

When they wanted to cheer, though, they needed sports. Sports broadcasts largely had to be consumed live for maximum enjoyment, so they held more of the television audience, as that audience splintered, than entertainment shows did. The rights to air sports gained value, both nationally and locally. Rights fees soared as competition grew. Regional sports networks largely replaced over-the-air channels as the rightsholders for regular-season baseball, and those RSNs needed baseball’s volume, those six games a week for six months, to fill their air. Baseball didn’t necessarily need to be good to be valuable; it just needed to be. It was programming.

This is where we are now. Fifty years ago, baseball teams were businesses built on bringing people to the ballpark, giving those people a good team to watch, a fun day in the sun, so they would come back again and again. The better the team, the more money you could make. Television was an additional revenue stream, valuable but not dominant. 

Today, baseball teams are television programming, their value largely tied to a schedule that sends them out 162 times a year, mostly at night, when people are home watching television. National television money, split 30 ways and guaranteed whether you win 25 games or 125, will bring each team more than $60 million a year come 2022. Every team is paid at least $20 million on a local deal as well, money that goes into the local-revenue-sharing pool and is redistributed to prop up teams in smaller television markets. Loosely speaking, television pays the players -- total TV revenue is roughly equal to league payroll. Tickets, stadium revenue, sponsorships, licensing and everything else pays non-playing staff, expenses and accounts for the profits. 

So we shouldn’t be surprised when the people who run baseball think and act like television executives. There were complaints about the way the 2020 schedule was set up; many fans would have liked to see games, played without fans in attendance, scheduled throughout the day, but most were played at night in the home team’s market. That’s because it was best for the RSNs broadcasting the games. The expanded playoffs? They were designed to sell ESPN and TBS the manufactured drama of short-series baseball. The condensed Division Series and LCS rounds? Scheduled that way so the World Series schedule would be unchanged, pleasing Fox. 

There was no one moment when it happened. From 1967 to 1971 to 1987 to 1994 to 2012 to now, television just became a little more important, and baseball just a little less important, at every turn. Guaranteed TV money is no longer just part of the deal; it has become the whole deal.

So now, in 2021, we have the league looking to keep the TV-pleasing expanded playoffs, even if it means further diluting the regular season, turning more September games into exhibitions, shifting the focus from the very best teams in baseball to the ones trying to stay above .500. Television doesn’t care about September. It cares about October. Television doesn’t care about races, it cares about series.

There’s no one standing up for baseball now. Thirty years ago, Fay Vincent got cashiered in part because he stood in the way of this, opposed the interests of television in defense of the interests of baseball. Baseball learned to never let someone like that in the room again. Baseball is no longer distinct from television. The people who run baseball, and the people who own baseball teams, think of themselves as providers of television programming first and foremost.

This affects every conversation we have about the game. A sport that sees itself as television programming will not notice how little happens outside the center-field camera angle. Strikeouts and home runs are exciting! Maybe, but if you’re in the second deck down the left-field line, what is spin rate or a well-framed slider to you? A sport that cares more about its postseason than its regular season will broadcast its disdain for the latter by shortening its games just to get them out of the way, and by using gimmicks to get them over with. It’s all just a seeding exercise, why are you even watching? There’s Only One October. A sport that cares more about TV ratings than attendance will price its tickets and beer and hot dogs with little concern about whether you watch from Section 228 or your couch. 

Right now, baseball isn’t a sport. It’s programming. Every decision the league and the owners make is through a camera lens, and until that changes, every lousy 21st century trend will continue.