You may not have heard, but if Major League Baseball and the MLB Players’ Association agree to expand the MLB postseason permanently, ESPN/ABC will have the full rights to broadcast Wild Card matchups starting in 2022. This was reported back in December by the New York Post‘s Andrew Marchand and Joel Sherman.
What you definitely did not hear is that ESPN’s new deal — seven-year, $550 million per year for the media rights — is significantly less than what they currently pay. That means with less money means fewer games for the network, and that means less baseball for ESPN. In the report, Marchand says that ESPN will drop from broadcasting 90 games to around 30 or 40 starting in 2022. All of this for a postseason round that currently does not exist.
In this same time frame, ESPN announced a portion of their Sunday Night Baseball schedule, as well as their Thursday Opening Day (Mets vs. Nationals) and second-half opener broadcasts.
This schedule is very troubling to see, and unfortunately, it’s nothing new for Disney and the Worldwide Leader in Sports. People have criticized the network for having a perceived bias towards east coast teams and other “marquee” teams (Cubs, Cardinals, Dodgers, and in the recent past, Tigers) over the past decade. This is especially true with the New York Yankees, and especially when they face the Boston Red Sox. Since the 2017 season, the matchup has been featured on ESPN’s matinee broadcast 11 times. That doesn’t include the three (and counting) for the upcoming season, nor the one extra broadcast that ESPN would have done under the original 2020 schedule.
Granted, it’s a rating business, and this has been an arguing point for what people feel is an East Coast bias. That is fair. However, there is no reason why a casual fan should feel like they are watching the same ten teams (for an exact measure, there are just 11 different teams on this upcoming schedule) playing against each other a year. Just one game on this year’s schedule does not feature an east coast or the aforementioned teams (White Sox vs. Angels), and there is no chance that the remaining eight or so slots will go to even half of the remaining 19 teams.
Here are some notes that I found and took from the last seven ESPN Press Room SNB releases (keep in mind that these are before the season starts, so this does not account for flex scheduling or Sundays that did not have a game scheduled unless otherwise noted):
- The Giancarlo Stanton–Christian Yelich–Marcell Ozuna Miami Marlins were only scheduled to be on SNB twice (Fort Bragg Game in 2016 and early 2017).
- The 2016 Arizona Diamondbacks made their first appearance on SNB since 2008. They have had one appearance since. Likewise, the 2021 San Diego Padres will appear for the first time since 2007.
- The 2016 and 2017 Mariners, regarded as contenders at the time, were on SNB just once (August 2016, against the Cubs).
- The 2015 and 2016 Royals, the reigning AL and World Series champions, respectively, received three SNB appearances in those two years and have not returned since.
- Until 2019, the Milwaukee Brewers were never on Sunday Night Baseball, and while they had three scheduled for 2020, they were left off the radar in 2021.
- Despite being the worst team in baseball at the time, the Orioles 2018 Players’ Weekend telecast against the Yankees was not flexed out of the slot. Additionally, ESPN almost flexed a Yankees-Orioles matchup in July to SNB.
- Until late last season in a flexed game against the Cubs, the Minnesota Twins were not on SNB at all from 2015 to 2020, and are currently not scheduled to have a broadcast in 2021. Similarly, the Athletics have not been on SNB at all in that timeframe.
- The Toronto Blue Jays have not found their way onto Sunday Night Baseball since 2004, and the one time they were supposed to be on primetime was cut back due to their opponent’s hasty travel schedule afterward (that oppenent was the Yankees).
- Do I really have to explain the Rays, you already know…
It is bad enough that the Twins and the Athletics, who have had relative success in the past few seasons, have escaped national attention. It is unbelievable and inexcusable that the Blue Jays, one of the most memorable teams last decade with many stars (Josh Donaldson, Jose Bautista, David Price, Marcus Stroman) and had THE moment that catalyzed the acceptance of celebration and emotion in modern baseball, were NEVER on the MLB regular season’s grandest stage.
The 2021 press release reads the subheadline “Ronald Acuña, Jr., Pete Alonso, Cody Bellinger, Mookie Betts, Rafael Devers, Bryce Harper, Aaron Judge, Juan Soto, Mike Trout, Fernando Tatís Jr., in Action” in order to market the promotion of stars, but the company completely leaves stars like Donaldson (really the entire Twins’ lineup), Matt Chapman, Trevor Story, Jose Ramirez, and Bo Bichette out of the picture to show the Cubs’ leftovers at least twice a year. No, east coast bias and time zone logistics cannot be legitimate excuses, because the NBA and their national TV partners (including ESPN/ABC) find ways to get the Phoenix Suns, Utah Jazz, Portland Trailblazers, Oklahoma City Thunder, and the Demarcus Cousins-led Sacramento Kings on national television often.
And in case you already forgot, there is no way this can be resolved by MLB and/or ESPN when at least 50 regular games are being cut from the network starting in 2022. What that means is that the casual fan is going to tune into the same six or seven teams not just on a Sunday night, but anytime Major League Baseball is broadcasted on ESPN.
The point I’m trying to make here is this: ESPN/ABC/Disney, a company that is vying for more postseason games, is terrible at marketing the game of baseball, to a point where they just might be one of the main issues that baseball has. And the lack of diversity in the teams that ESPN broadcasts is just the start of the issues. If it was not for their live programming, baseball would be a complete microcosm on the network.
When Ian Desmond stated his reasoning for opting out of the season — both concerns of COVID-19 and frustration with society a month removed from the murder of George Floyd being the factors — it did not come as much of a surprise. The main part of the agreement between the MLBPA and the league, more players, including Buster Posey and Mike Leake, would follow.
What was not expected was the topic being discussed on First Take:
Now granted, given the nature of the topic (racism and prejudice), something both Stephen A. Smith and Max Kellerman have almost never been shy to speak on, the Ian Desmond story itself being a point of discussion was not a surprise. What was a surprise was seeing Desmond, someone who has not been a star since his lone Rangers season, and the Colorado Rockies logo on a YouTube thumbnail on ESPN. That shock is ONLY the case because ESPN rarely talks about baseball on their national platforms.
Before 2020, I could count on my fingers the number of times a baseball topic came up on an ESPN show not named Sportscenter. About 70 percent of those appearances were during the World Series. Very rarely is their a topic brought up before and after the Fall Classic, with the network ignoring Manny Machado‘s near-tirade of misfortune in the 2018 postseason and Mike Brosseau and the Rays’ rise to the World Series. Then there is the very rare — one percent — chance that someone under the ESPN payroll recognizes the greatest player in the game today in Mike Trout. The other 29 percent of baseball topics on the network’s programming always seems to be when baseball is in the headline for the wrong reasons or to completely tear down the state of baseball.
In fact, Kellerman religiously mentions almost every single time he talks about baseball on national television or the national radio airwaves something along the lines of “I love baseball, but we don’t cover it nationally on this network because…”
Well, Mr. Kellerman, I ask you: how can someone give a sport a chance when it is talked down upon constantly by you and a majority of your co-workers? If I was hired by a cooking network and began stating that certain dishes are not featured on the channel because of its logistics, would that not turn casual fans away from the sport? This is the same person that about four months ago from that take stated that MLB was more popular than the NBA, but it’s not shown because baseball is more of a local sport. Wouldn’t that mean that if you focused your programming on more teams other than the New York teams, Cubs, Cardinals, and Dodgers, it would move the needle a little bit at the least?
But never fear, the easy fix to this would be to have a show designed specifically for baseball, where the hosts can talk about the sport for hours on end! Oh wait, ESPN got rid of that too in early 2019, and also let the chance to continue syndicating MLB Network’s Intentional Talk slip away. The only thing left of baseball-specific studio programming — still branded as Baseball Tonight — is essentially their pre-game show before Sunday Night Baseball, and that means there are just 12 teams that will be talked about throughout the course of the season.
Another problem is that when baseball is covered on the national level on ESPN, they are not covered by people who clearly want to talk about baseball. No, I’m not considering analytical knowledge in the term “expert” — breaking news, more than half of baseball personalities and commentators on the airwaves are not analytically inclined — I’m just talking about baseball knowledge and love for the sport in general. That is going to happen when every single time you have layoffs in the latter half of the 2010s, it always affects your baseball coverage the most. Now, whenever baseball is a national topic, there are very few non-former players not named Tim Kurkjian, Buster Olney, and Jeff Passan to go to for actual discussion. Therefore, you are left with Stephen A. Smith attempting to explain baseball terms and Max Kellerman completely destroying the game before getting to his point.
Notice how I did not even get to ESPN’s Sunday Night Baseball game crew, criticized since the departure of Jon Miller and Joe Morgan, but especially vilified since the latest crew entered. The network has moved Mendoza off the broadcast and it seems like they’re taking it year-by-year with Matt Vasgersian, but they continue to insist on building their dream Sunday Night crew around the man who has gotten the most criticism — albeit a decent amount for reasons other than his baseball commentary — over the last three years: Alex Rodriguez. This is the same network that got Joe Tessitore and Booger McFarland off of Monday Night Football almost as quickly as they got there because of how loud the complaints were.
Okay, so now that we got that all out of the way…hey, Alex Rodriguez, STOP TELLING EVERYONE TO BUNT!
I am not saying that ESPN doesn’t care at all about the sport of baseball at all. At least they still have the rights to the College World Series and the Little League World Series, the latter’s championship game on ABC, and are likely to keep the U.S. rights to KBO games. They are also not the only network that has seemingly kept baseball off the grid, as FOX’s cable sports channel — FS1 — and their premier shows almost completely ignore baseball until it’s time to broadcast games.
But when you look at the overall picture, the layoffs, the lack of coverage around the league, the removal of baseball-centric shows, the “baseball is not good enough to be covered nationally” talk, the refusal to listen to your baseball viewership for your national games, it shows that baseball is not one of the network’s priorities.
Now this new deal, removing 50+ games from the network, further condensing your baseball coverage, for the hope of one extra postseason series, proves that ESPN looks down upon baseball. If we are talking about the future of baseball and the necessity to market the sport better, the attitude that Disney shows towards this sport hurts the publicity and enhancement of the sport.
Follow Payton Ellison on Twitter (@realpmelli14).