Baseball coverage on television: An SB Nation roundtable

Hunter Martin

Who should replace Tim McCarver? Is baseball getting too old? Where is the future of the game on television?

I've written a lot about the state of baseball on television this summer, and done a lot of baseball-related work on the site. I thought it'd be a great way to finish off the summer of baseball, before the mean ol' NFL rears its ugly head and fights MLB for the attention of the American sports fan. I brought together a panel of baseball writers and sports media columnists to talk about the state of the sport on TV. They gave us some interesting stuff, so without further ado, let's roll.

Our esteemed panel features:

Jesse Spector, national baseball writer for the Sporting News.

Wendy Thurm, writer for Fangraphs, Bay Area Sports Guy, Sports on Earth.

Neil Best, sports media columnist for Newsday.

and Matt Yoder, managing editor of Awful Announcing.

Do you think national interest in baseball is higher, lower or the same as it was 10 years ago?

Jesse Spector: I think it's about the same, but with a caveat that my thought process is that this sameness of interest level comes from a sort of evening out of a couple of different things, if this makes sense. What I think is that there were more casual baseball fans in 2003, a year when the Red Sox and Cubs were both on their way to the playoffs, looking to end championship droughts that were nearly a century long, and tainted though it may have been even then, you had Barry Bonds ramping up his pursuit of home run history. While some of that element goes away, I think that the number of total seamheads, spurred on by the ability to consume baseball pretty much 24/7, has gone up. I don't think that this number matches the number of occasional observers whose interest is not currently piqued, but overall, I think the interest-o-meter has the same reading that it did a decade ago.

Wendy Thurm: As measured by ratings for nationally-televised games, interest appears to be lower. But national ratings tell only part of the story. MLB At-Bat and MLB.tv have grown exponentially since their introduction and local ratings have been relatively strong (although big city teams have taken a hit this year in New York, Philly and Chicago)

Neil Best: Hmm. That's a tough one. I'm going to say that on a national basis baseball interest is less than it was 10 years ago as measured by collective events such as the World Series, All-Star Game and nationally televised regular-season games. But I think the sport is more popular than 10 years ago on a regional basis in those markets that either always are into baseball (N.Y., Boston, StL) or get into it when their team is doing well.

Matt Yoder: That's a pretty difficult one to answer because it depends on the metric. Are we talking about attendance? National TV ratings? Local TV ratings? Baseball had its highest attendance figures since 2008 last year, but World Series TV ratings fell into a black hole of record lows thanks to an uninteresting sweep. Looking at the total landscape and specifically at a "national" level, I have to say it's down overall. The NFL dwarfs everything, soccer and hockey are trending upward, and baseball has more competition across the board for our ever shrinking attention spans.

Baseball ratings have been on a steady downward trend since 2003, with the audience growing older and older. What can this be attributed to?

JS: There are a lot of factors in this, but the audience growing older mirrors the fact that the generation most tied to baseball is getting older, and that would be my parents' generation. Take a look at the formative sports-fan years of my generation, and you'll see it dominated by Michael Jordan, and the year that he was out of basketball, a canceled World Series. That's not to say that there aren't baseball fans in their 30s, but the great hero of MLB in the mid-1990s was a guy whose major accomplishment was showing up for work every day. After that, there were heroes who were pretty much immediately torn down, namely McGwire and Bonds. Also, games get longer as attention spans get shorter, and it's just a theory, but I don't think people feel the need to watch full baseball games the same way as they once did.

WT: If you're referring to national ratings, see my answer to Question 1. Fans simply don't need nationally-televised games to see out-of-market teams, with the availability of MLB Extra Innings and MLB.tv. Younger fans tend to be more tech-saavy, and have migrated away from the Fox and ESPN national telecasts.

NB: It can be attributed in part to the fact that games are 30-45 minutes longer than when I was a lad, thanks largely to batters needing to take a little stroll and get themselves fixed up just so after every pitch -- and also on the insane devotion to working counts to get pitchers' pitch totals up. Also, how can I say this delicately? How about this: It's BORING! Kids today don't like that.

MY: Where do we start? A total lack of ability to market any young stars or anybody outside the I-95 corridor. (Walk into your local BW's and ask if anybody knows Andrew McCutchen.) A stagnant television product that hasn't evolved since the '90s. Games that take four hours to finish and lose the attention of anyone born after the Kennedy administration. A refusal to embrace YouTube and social media and failing to realize that by cracking down on video sharing, they're actually hurting their product with the demos they crave. Other than that, MLB is in great shape with younger fans.

Is it possible that baseball's quick acceptance of online streaming technology (MLB.tv is celebrating its 11th year, which is mind-boggling) has hurt them in the short term?

JS: Ratings-wise, absolutely, this is probably another factor, although it doesn't explain anything about playoff ratings being on a downward trend because MLB.tv doesn't stream the playoffs. But the thing about MLB.tv that's absolutely great is this: I knew Vin Scully was awesome because he was the national announcer when I was a little kid. Now there are people who have grown up with Joe Buck in the national booth who have discovered Scully because of streaming late-night Dodgers games. Any short-term losses, I think, are canceled out by the long-term gains of being early adopters to technology, which will help grow the base of fans among that important younger demographic.

WT: I don't think so. MLBAM has pushed the envelope technologically, which is attractive to younger fans, and its growth has been phenomenal. At the same time, MLB just inked lucrative new national TV contracts. I'm not sure ESPN, FOX and TBS made the right decisions on their end, but for the next five years, that's to the benefit of MLB.

NB: No.

MY: I don't think so. If anything, MLB hasn't done enough. MLB.tv may have been forward thinking, but what about their social media policies that are so restrictive? What about archaic blackout rules nobody understands? For all the good things they've done, too often MLB appears stuck in a past generation at times.

Does MLB promote its stars, specifically its younger stars, well enough? Do they rely too much on older players (Ortiz, Jeter, Rivera, etc.)?

JS: Take a look at the Head & Shoulders commercial with C.J. Wilson and Josh Hamilton.

Forget for a moment that Hamilton's season has been a dumpster fire and Wilson has been merely pretty good for a moribund Angels team, and let's say that these guys belong in a national ad campaign in 2013. We still need more of an introduction than this. At no point in the commercial can you even see Wilson's uniform number. This isn't like Troy Polamalu, where everybody knew who he was because he was That Guy With The Hair From The Steelers. Maybe you know Josh Hamilton because of his story of redemption and his amazing Home Run Derby performance, but that was five years ago, and he's not on the Rangers anymore. Wilson is a pretty cool guy who was one of the first athletes to really embrace Twitter, but who's going to recognize him from just his face? He might as well be an actor.

Oh, and here's Mickey Mantle and Whitey Ford in a commercial -- note how they're identified, and refer to each other by name. I know 1970s advertising was different, but you're told why these guys are important.

As for relying too much on older players, no, I don't think that's a problem, so long as young stars are being promoted heavily in their own right, and damn if Bryce Harper isn't all over the place now.

WT: MLB can and should do a better job in this area. The lack of "national" stars is likely connected to declining national TV ratings and a shift to local/MLB Extra Innings/MLB.tv over the last 10 years. Still, baseball is flush with talented young players who should be promoted by the league: Trout, Harper, Kershaw, Puig, Posey, McCutchen, Longoria, Harvey, Votto, Goldschmidt, etc.

NB: I do think we're in a transition phase right now, which really hit home when I was covering the ASG at Citi Field and barely knew who half the players were. But I do think each generation that sorts itself out, and players such as Harper, Trout, Harvey, etc., will be fine for leading the next generation of stars into the spotlight.

MY: No and yes. A thousand times over. Who's been the most talked about player this season on the field? Mariano Rivera? He's older than Bryce Harper and Mike Trout combined! Oh, and their biggest star is currently appealing a 211 game suspension. Eep.

How are baseball's main broadcasters doing? Do Fox and ESPN do a good enough job of promoting and presenting the game?

JS: To be honest, I don't watch a ton of nationally-televised baseball games these days because I do the vast majority of my baseball watching on the iPad with MLB.tv, and, well, those games don't go on MLB.tv. Of course, I have seen their work, and I don't think they do much that particularly stands out as great or horrible.

In hockey, everyone flips out all the time about Pierre McGuire, and in baseball, Joe Morgan is gone and Tim McCarver (who people forget used to be a really good color analyst during his time in the Mets booth) is coming to the end of the road, baffling America by giving spoken-word performances of Metallica songs.

What I'd like to see, on national broadcasts for all sports (except the NFL, because this wouldn't make much sense) is for one announcer from each team's local broadcast to work together. There would be interesting discussions in the booth, particularly in baseball, where there's time for that, and nobody would be more knowledgeable about the teams on the field, not to mention that it would cure us all of the "Joe Buck hates my team" thing forever. This will never happen, since networks like to have their own broadcasters, but imagine a Red Sox-Cubs game called by Don Orsillo and Jim Deshaies. Heck, imagine a White Sox-Yankees game with Hawk Harrelson and anyone from the YES Network.

None of that will ever happen, and I don't really care who Buck works with (just keep it a two-person operation, please) because the goal is going to be to have as vanilla and lowest-common-denominator a broadcast as possible, so I just hope that Fox spares us the incessant close-up shots of everything and everyone, and delivers more replays.

One other gripe: Why do sideline/dugout reporters have to appear on screen? What ever happened to the little chyron that said "VOICE OF" that once was so useful?

WT: Tim McCarver's retirement is big opportunity for FOX to upgrade its national broadcast team. (Frankly, an opportunity it should have pushed for several years ago). But FOX will likely play it safe, matching Joe Buck with another former player who has done FOX work in the past: Eric Karros, Eric Byrnes, etc. I will say this for Byrnes: he's fully on board with advanced statistics, a voice that is sorely needed at FOX.

Dan Schulman and Boog Sciambi at ESPN are top notch: smart, interesting, witty, progressive. I prefer to see them matched with younger former players -- guys who played into the late 1990s or early 2000s -- and are more connected to today's game.

NB: I think Fox, Turner and ESPN show proper dedication to the game. There certainly is no shortage of games being shown, that's for sure. And the lead announcing teams for each network do a good job these days. The big issue facing baseball on TV is what Fox will do post-McCarver. I'd put my money on John Smoltz, who I think does a good job.

MY: Fox's MLB coverage has been in need of an overhaul for a decade. Part of the reason why baseball coverage has hit a rut is because nothing has changed for so long on television. Joe Buck and Tim McCarver have been calling the World Series since Joe Girardi was catching for the Yankees. It's like MLB on Fox drastically needs an injection of life and energy from somewhere. Maybe a new approach, new announcers, new studio personnel, and a revived commitment could actually rejuvenate the product and the sport. (A novel concept, I know.) For what it's worth, ESPN does a solid job covering Major League Baseball, but much like Fox, many of the key components have been stagnant for too long. Sometimes change can be good!

Has MLB Network taken over as the place where most hardcore baseball fans get their news (at least on TV), and if so, is that good or bad?

JS: I'm not sure if it has, but it's not a bad thing (now) because MLB has given the network the freedom to go ahead with unflattering news. It's always worrisome when the house organ is the loudest, but it's not like MLB fans are stuck with something on a level of the lockout coverage put forward by NHL Network last year, which is to say, ignorance is bliss.

WT: I don't know what the ratings say about MLB Tonight vs. Baseball Tonight and other similar programs. There is some concern among baseball writers that the league is moving every so slowly away from clubhouse access for all credential media to a more MLBN-focused approach. That would not be a positive development, in my view.

NB: "Hardcore" fans? Maybe. But I think more fans overall still rely on ESPN. MLBN has become a go-to place for breaking news (ie PED suspensions) and no-hitters/perfect games in progress, but while I think MLBN does a good job overall, I don't think it has "taken over" the MLB conversation from ESPN and RSNs.

MY: The answer I hear from most baseball fans is in the affirmative for MLB Network. It's a double-edged sword to be honest. MLB Network offers plenty of smart analysts and dedicated baseball coverage that isn't always driven by market size and what's now. While that may serve fans better, I'm sure MLB execs want their sport to break through the mainstream news cycle more often ... especially if it doesn't include the word "Biogenesis."

MLB is about to begin a new TV deal in 2014, with even more content headed for cable (Fox is slated to stick around, but only for about a dozen weeks, the post-season and the ASG). The question is, however, do national TV deals really matter much in baseball anymore, since teams are making a killing off regional TV (at least until the "bubble" bursts)?

JS: One thing that Fox excels at is making things that it airs into big events, so I think that limited network coverage might actually be to baseball's benefit in this way. The only concern I would have about baseball getting bumped from national broadcast TV is that the season heats up in the fall, and the weekends are going to be dominated by football -- college on Saturdays, pro on Sundays -- with further encroachment onto weeknights on the gridiron. I don't think that's ideal.

WT: Similar to the first few questions above. We may have seen the last of the super lucrative national TV deals.

NB: Well, national deals still do matter, at the very least for the hefty money they bring in, but it's certainly true that baseball more so than the NBA is a regional attraction and that the RSNs probably matter more than the national outlets -- for the regular season, anyway.

MY: As long as those rights fees keep going up, I doubt the higher-ups care too much the exact sources it's coming from. More sports are moving to cable overall (NCAA Tournament, NBA Playoffs, BCS) so baseball is just following the trend.

In the new TV deal, the playoffs will be split up again, with TBS carrying half of the LDS and 1 LCS, while Fox Sports 1 will air the other half of the LDS, and support Fox's coverage of the other LCS. Is this arrangement better or worse than the all-TBS, all-the-time coverage of the past seven years?

JS: It's been seven years of TBS already? Jeez, where does the time go? Yeah, I guess Chip Caray did yell "LINE DRIVE BASE HIT" at the Metrodome, so... wow. Anyway, until last month, I was covering a sport that had playoff games airing on CNBC, and had the league come away thrilled with its playoff ratings, so I'm inclined to say that people are going to find the playoff games on TV regardless, and the spread of networks is really more to the benefit of the networks than the benefit or detriment of the sport. All these networks want baseball, so I say that's a good sign.

WT: Better or worse for who? On what terms? Not sure what you're asking. The more difficult it is for fans to find postseason games, the number of fans watching will decline.

NB: In a perfect world, simpler is better for viewers. But most viewers have learned to navigate their ways through the maze of outlets carrying sports stuff in this imperfect world, and therefore all will be well.

MY: It all depends on the exposure Fox Sports 1 gets and how easily fans find the channel. If we see struggles for recognition like NBCSN has gone through in this first year then it may be a minor concern for MLB.

Lastly. will baseball be in a better or worse place on television a decade from now?

JS: Better. I don't see technology's progress stalling out. The concept of baseball on TV is better than it was now than in 2003, which was better than in 1993, which was better than 1983, which was better than 1973, which was better than 1963, which I can say because I've seen MLB Network re-air old games. There are facets of the broadcasts that have gotten worse/more annoying/dumbed down, but overall, each decade is leaps and bounds ahead of the one before. I think that trend continues to 2023.

WT: Baseball will be a better viewing experience in 10 years. I'm not at all convinced that TV will lead the way on that, or be overtaken by MLB.tv and other streaming products.

NB: Worse. The lackluster interest from people under 40 -- or under 50, even -- is a huge problem for the sport. Baseball, which originated the fantasy sports concept, needs to find a way to get people as excited about it as a fantasy sport as they are about football to have any chance to reverse this trend.

MY: I hope so. Sports are better when baseball is healthy and vibrant. Another steroids scandal has really dragged the entire sport down this year and it's been depressing. The sad thing is there are so many great stories out there in Pittsburgh and Oakland and Cleveland and Cincinnati and Kansas City that you just don't know exist. Hopefully as the next decade rolls on we'll see Fox commit more resources to reviving the World Series as a television event. Hopefully baseball gets rid of silly blackouts and lifts the curtain on social media. Hopefully games are sped up to better reach those fans who are looking elsewhere at the moment. Hopefully younger stars and small-market teams can shine more on the national stage. Hopefully it's in a better place in a decade.

More from SB Nation MLB:

Miguel Tejada suspended 105 games for failed drug tests

Gauging the Jose Dariel Abreu market

Neyer: Revisiting great players’ graves

A-Rod’s attorney accuses Yankees of withholding MRI results

Longform: The death of a ballplayer

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