Who do you consider to be the television authority on Major League Baseball?
When you think about it, baseball is really the only "big four" American sport without a major television network that consistently covers it on the obsessive level a sport like baseball deserves. No one would ever suggest the NFL and NBA aren't getting top billing at ESPN (and to a lesser extent for the NBA, TNT). The NHL's move over from ESPN to NBC ensured that it would be the centerpiece of entire sports cable network.
What major network really focuses on baseball, besides the obvious MLB Network? TBS is home to most of the post-season (through the end of this year, before it splits the LDS with Fox and the Wild Cards with ESPN) but as far as regular MLB coverage ... it's one game a week on Sunday afternoon that nobody watches. The game is blacked out in whatever markets are playing in the game, which means that you see TBS' MLB coverage about six or seven times before the postseason starts.
ESPN has Sunday Night Baseball, usually the most-watched game each week, and the ever-decreasing in quality Baseball Tonight, but is anyone really going to the Worldwide Leader for John Kruk's take on whether or not the Braves have added enough hitting to take the NL East this year? Karl Ravech is as solid a baseball man on television as they come, but when's the last time someone from ESPN's baseball department really got anyone talking? Besides Curt Schilling's financial troubles, that is.
Then you go to Fox, which airs the seminal Game of the Week every Saturday, as well as the World Series. Does anyone think "the home of baseball" and immediately think Fox? I sincerely doubt it. Quick pop quiz: name one Fox baseball person aside from Buck and McCarver.
Jokes aside, Fox does an admirable job covering a ton of baseball that nobody watches every year, and is rewarded with an ALCS (more often than not the higher-rated of the two League Championship Series) every two years, and a World Series audience that ages more and more every year. More women over the age of 50 watched the World Series last year than men between the ages of 18 and 49. Have you ever noticed how many of the commercials during MLB telecasts are for Viagra knockoffs and gout pills?
The truth is, Fox has been the lone broadcast network for MLB for 12 years (they began broadcasting baseball in 1996 under a split package with NBC), and in that time, baseball viewership has crawled further away from the NBA and closer and closer to the NHL, but much older than the NHL. Want proof? The MLB on Fox (which, mind you, had eight weeks of prime time games to try to juice ratings) finished last year with an average rating of 1.7 and 2.5 million viewers per week, the lowest for an MLB broadcast package in the history of the sport on TV. The NBA averaged a 3.3 and 5.4 million viewers a week for their package of games on ABC. The NHL on NBC? A 1.0 and 1.6 million viewers per week.
The strange thing is, Fox had a chance to affect real change on it's television package last year, with Turner and ESPN looking for a bigger piece of the pie, while NBC wanted in period. Fox just wanted to keep what they had. So what did they do? They gave Fox more content, cut ESPN a Wild Card game, and decreased the TBS package significantly. Starting next year, MLB games will air on ESPN, ESPN2, Fox, an as-of-yet unnamed Fox cable channel (tentatively known as Fox Sports 1), TBS and MLB Network. Got that all written down?
Give Bud Selig credit, he continues to pump money out of networks for a sport that is dying a slow death among traditional metrics of television. Why? Because every network that wants to be in the sports game has a property that runs in the fall, winter, and even spring. But if you don't have baseball, the best you can do over the summer is Major League Soccer or the WNBA for consistent programming. Baseball is still the only game in town, even as fewer people continue to want that game until the calendar hits October.
Let's go back to Fox, which in April will start the final season of the regular Game of the Week package. After 2013, Fox will cut back it's weeks of MLB coverage from 24 dates a season to a measly 12. To compare that, NBC broadcast 13 weeks of NHL coverage for 2013, while the NBA was on ESPN nine dates this season. Where are all those games going? Most to that aforementioned new Fox cable network, Fox Sports 1, which will televise those Saturday games, as well as half of the LDS. However, for all intents and purposes, Game of the Week is dead.
Is this a good thing? Probably. Major League Baseball just isn't national anymore. It's more of a regional game. Very few markets can be counted on to deliver ratings when the team isn't winning, and only a third of the teams make the playoffs. Baseball simply isn't made for TV anymore. Wasn't the World Baseball Classic basically a made-for-TV event? The third one happens in March, and every game will be reduced to the MLB Network. Plus, the Fox broadcasts felt little more than regional telecasts with slightly more panache to them, especially as Joe Buck and Tim McCarver have drastically reduced their schedules over the years. Primetime games were (and are) a nice try, but other than Red Sox-Yankees, there's just not that much appetite for regionalized, Saturday afternoon baseball anymore.
It all builds to the main point I'm trying to make here: MLB is a league adrift in the television landscape. It floats around from network to network as it's needed, but no major channel (again, MLB Network is terrific, but still) seems all that interested in bringing us back to the 90's, when Baseball Tonight was a must-watch, MLB highlights dominated SportsCenter and the sport was still getting people to tune in week to week. They've got eight years until the next television contract is up. If they don't find a network that's going promote the hell out of it and treat it on the same level as football and hoops, we'll be having this same conversation in 2021, and that's a problem.