Friday, August 28, 2009

Not FJM: Baseball and Marketing in the 21st Century

Earlier this week, Tom Daniels posted a terrific piece on his One New York Life blog. He covered the baseball/marketing conundrum as well as anyone's done previously, but I wasn't sure if I agreed with all his points. After reading it a few more times, I realized I needed to pull out some stolen (not) FJM formatting for the final determination. Tom's text is in bold…:

Really, baseball as a whole has never quite figured out how to market themselves nationally. People just don’t watch national broadcasts unless it’s their own team. It’s an issue unique to baseball. The NFL only has national broadcasts. The NBA on TNT routinely doubles up baseball’s national broadcasts.

I was all ready to start shooting holes in Tom's assessment of baseball's national broadcasts. After all, I remember the 1980s and NBC's Saturday Game of the Week sure seemed like a big deal. Apparently this was only the case on my television.

NBC's average national ratings for weekly baseball from 1987-89: 5.9, 5.5 and 4.9. CBS took over in 1990 and by the end of their four-year deal, weekly ratings had dropped to 3.4. The past three seasons on FOX (including 2009): 2.4, 2.1 and 1.9. A week ago, FOX aired a preseason tilt between the Eagles and Colts, which pulled down a 4.2 rating.

Baseball wants its fans to watch that and, in addition, another three hours watching Joe Morgan dissect a Dodgers/Giants game that, at best, means almost nothing to me as a National League East fan or, at worst, means absolutely nothing to an American League fan? There is nothing to draw me to watch a meaningless baseball game.

Man. I've literally spent two nights eyeballing this paragraph and I'm still not sure how to respond. Generally speaking, I'm in agreement with Tom. Personally, though, I've purchased the MLB Extra Innings package every year since 2002. I'd estimate I've watched more than 90% of the A's games played – live or DVR'd – in that span.

I've also watched an ungodly amount of "meaningless" games. Maybe not from beginning to end, but I'll watch the Cardinals because my kid likes Albert Pujols (and is too young to realize that Matt Holliday deserves his scorn rather than adoration). I'll watch the Yankees because I'll occasionally text m'man (and NYY fan) Nick'a in real time if the Bombers are scuffling. I'll watch [a certain National League team] because their play-by-play guy sent me a really nice email last year after I reviewed his work for
my SoS feature.

Again, I agree with Tom and whatever "shades of gray" I may cite are trumped by evidence named "Nielsen".

In addition to the checking of personalities — the number of must-watch players in baseball is infinitesimal. None of them are position players. Nobody, and I do mean nobody, watches a national broadcast for a position player’s five plate appearances.

This was originally the part of Tom's piece that had me in violent disagreement. But, the more I thought about it – as we sit here in 2009 – the more I realized that Tom just might be right. When I was younger, I did watch Braves games on TBS just to see Deion Sanders (come on, now…the 1992-93 version was exciting as hell). I vividly remember sitting through a midweek 1990 Royals vs. Orioles game on ESPN – with Mike Lupica as the third man in the booth! – just for Bo Jackson. And, it's no secret that my world stopped for Barry Bonds' at-bats.

Today, I won't go out of my way to watch any single hitter. Earlier tonight, my A's led the hated Angels 6-1. I started channel surfing and found Tim Lincecum on the mound for the Giants as they battled the Rockies. The Giants were leading 1-0 with two outs in the sixth inning and I was intently watching to see the final Colorado hitter retired. Why? Because, with his stuff, I had to see if Lincecum was throwing a no-hitter – even though there was a Rockies runner on third. There's not a hitter in the game who has that kind of "might make history on any given night" mojo.

Unfortunately, baseball is the most resistant to change. The absolutely easiest way to speed games up is to eliminate the DH, reinstate the letter high strike, and not allow batters to step out in between pitches. But, if anything, the National League will likely adopt the DH in the coming years.

At last…something I can clearly disagree with. The National League will never adopt the DH (and, yes, I'm pretty sure Tom was being hyperbolic there). Baseball inexplicably views its "two completely different sets of rules between leagues" as part of the game's charm.

[The next baseball Commissioner] is going to be left with a system in which some of his teams can’t afford to field a major league roster because Tom Hicks’s A-Rod contract broke baseball.

Tom didn't elaborate, but on the surface I can't subscribe to this theory. Yeah, then-GM of the Texas Rangers Tom Hicks was bidding against himself when he handed Rodriguez that $252 million deal, but that deal didn't even "break" the Rangers, much less all of baseball. The following year, Hicks signed SP Chan Ho Park – a flyball pitcher whose numbers were infl…er, deflated by playing Dodger Stadium – to a five-year $65 million contract. If anything has "broken" the game it's the bad, Barry Zito-ish deals.

Nitpicking aside…awesome job, Tom.


Tom said...

It's funny -- the original draft said: "Nobody, and I do mean nobody (except kids), watches a national broadcast for a position player’s five plate appearances." primarily because of some things you've written about watching with J, but I didn't like the way it read so I cut the parentheses.

By "broke baseball" I meant that Hicks screwed up the natural growth of contracts within the sport -- not broke as in "out of money".

And I don't want the NL DH either, but it's going to happen if interleague play continues... for competitive balance if nothing else.

that mexican guy said...

Tonight's ESPN game: Phillies v. Braves.

I'm a Dodgers fan, so I have no room to complain, but the national networks have no one to blame but themselves when a World Series involving the Rays doesn't draw viewers or an NLCS between the Rockies and D'Backs isn't watched by anyone outside of Denver and Phoenix.

It's a self-fulfilling prophecy. Show America nothing but NYY, BOS, PHI, NYM and Cubs in the regular season and that's all they'll wanna see in October.