Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Baseball Night In America: The Worst Idea Ever

There are bad ideas. There are horrible ideas. And then there's Baseball Night in America.

As I was doing some research for my column yesterday on the MLB All-Star Game, I went over the history of televised baseball to jog my memory about how the game was broadcast in 1996. It led me to the ill-fated Baseball Network that was unleashed upon an unsuspecting public in 1994. To this day, I considered it the single worst idea in the history of sports broadcasting. Of course, no one really mentions it because it was overshadowed by the single worst idea in the history of sports – canceling the 1994 World Series.

From 1990 to 1993, Major League Baseball was televised by CBS. That deal was marked by the tremendous amount of money CBS lost, just giving it away hand over fist, as they paid more than $1 billion for four years of baseball. That time frame ended up being one of the worst financial recessions of post-war America and included not one, but two World Series featuring a Canadian team – also, the only two. The CBS coverage was marked by a decided lack of coverage, as the network would go weeks during the regular season without showing a game.

So when MLB announced that it was forming The Baseball Network with NBC and ABC, the early response was mostly positive. I remember being excited that there would be more baseball on nationally. The concept of Baseball Night in America – funny how much better Football Night in America has worked for NBC – seemed new and different. I think everyone was willing to give the premise a chance.

I only wish that people that don't remember The Baseball Network could go back in time and suffer through the indignity of our national pastime being drug through the mud.

The concept was, much like communism, solid in theory. If NBC or ABC – the networks switched up coverage – had the ability to show every game, they would get huge ratings. Much like how Fox and NBC at the time were dividing up NFL games on Sunday. If people wanted to watch baseball on, say, a Monday night it would have to be during Baseball Night in America. They'd have to watch the network. Brilliant! Right?

Except the concept was beyond flawed from the start. Unlike the NFL, which had Monday Night Football, Sunday Night Football and usually three different games on Sunday afternoons, Baseball Night in America provided just one. That's it. There could be 14 baseball games going on. And you got to watch one.

Now if you lived in St. Louis and the Cardinals were in a pennant race, Baseball Night in America simply provided you with what you wanted to watch anyway. And that was the absolute only scenario in which the format worked.

In others, it failed about as miserably as something could fail. There were East Coast games that started at 8 p.m. and West Coast games that started at 11 p.m. But you only got one game and that game had to fall within your primetime window of 8 to 11, to maximize ratings of course. So that meant if you lived in Atlanta and the Braves were playing on the road in San Francisco, you couldn't watch that game. Yes, it was possible for Baseball Night in America to block out the hometown team's game even if that game was being played 3,000 miles away.

I guess if anything, the venture was a boon to radio stations.

In Chicago, the local NBC or ABC affiliate could only air one game, meaning having to decide between the Cubs and White Sox each and every time. Boy, that must've been fun for the local station, eh?

It was even worse where I lived in Connecticut as the local affiliate had to choose between three teams – the Mets, Yankees and Red Sox. Now the Mets weren't great in 1994 or 1995 but it was still a bummer to not even have the option to watch your favorite team.

For me, the tipping point was July 17, 1995. Jason Isringhausen was making his MLB debut against the Chicago Cubs. The game was not televised in New York or Connecticut. Or anywhere outside of Chicago. To this day, I can't remember the lack of coverage for a sporting event making me more angry. If Izzy, who was at the time the Mets' prized minor league possession, had debuted the day before, the day after, or any other day of the week, I would've been able to watch it. Instead, The Baseball Network promised “frequent updates” and it only made it worse. Isringhausen went seven innings, gave up just two hits and led the Mets to victory even if he didn't pick up the W. It was heart-breaking I missed that game.

Of course, Baseball Night in America didn't limit its damage to the regular season. In 1995, MLB finally had its division series in place. They scheduled all four division series games to start at the same time. I wish I was making this up. In Connecticut, the local affiliate had to choose between the Red Sox series and the Yankees series. The Red Sox won out so I didn't see the beginning of the classic 1995 Mariners/Yankees series because I was unable to.

To make matters worse – if that was even possible – they also scheduled both NLCS and ALCS games to start at the same time. For one horrific October, the country was deprived of seeing postseason baseball. It's unfathomable to think of that happening today. What's scary is that baseball, along with the NFL, had always televised each playoff game nationally. They were actually taking the product away from fans in the hope of pushing its ratings up a tick. Needless to say, it didn't work.

Baseball Night in America was gone after the 1995 as Fox swooped in to swipe the MLB rights that it carries on to this day. ESPN was brought on in 1996, as was NBC, to allow all postseason games to be shown nationwide. Baseball currently enjoys one of the best nationally televised packages, with games on nationally almost every night of the week, a dedicated broadcast partner in Fox and two cable partners in TBS and ESPN that have shown a tremendous amount of baseball in the past several years.

For me, Baseball Night in America carries on as a special memory of mine. You remember the great things in life. And you remember the horrible things. From the very first second of The Baseball Network, when I realized that instead of possibly watching three local teams play I was limited to one, I knew that the venture was going to be a failure of epic proportions. An epic fail before that term had its own website.

There have been plenty of failures and mistakes when it comes to sports broadcasting, whether its Fox's glowing puck when it televised hockey or Dennis Miller in the Monday Night Football booth. But most mistakes could be attributed to trying something, for failing during the attempt to achieve greatness. I didn't like the glowing puck, no one did, but I completely and totally understood what Fox was thinking. It was a risk at greatness that failed.

That was in play with the Baseball Network. It was an ill-conceived, poorly thought out way to try to make more money off of a sport by blatantly spitting in the eyes of its fans. It boggles the mind even now to wrap your brain about just what Major League Baseball was thinking.

To this day, I have so many questions. Okay, so I really just have one. Why?

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1 comment:

  1. Funny thing is, Fox actually revived the Baseball Night in America title for its Saturday night regional broadcasts. Thankfully, those do NOT have any bullshit exclusivity rules.

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