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Baseball Swinging a Hot Bat This Season

May 28, 2007  •  Post A Comment

Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig says that on a good night, he watches as many as 15 baseball games on TV. He’s not the only one tuning in.
During the first four weeks of the MLB season, Fox’s Saturday baseball package was off to its best start ever with an average of nearly 4 million viewers, while ESPN was drawing almost 2.1 million viewers and had its highest ratings since 1997.
On a local level, baseball’s drawing as well: The Mets-Yankees game on May 18 was the most watched Subway Series game since 1997.
Television has played a big part in baseball’s business success under Mr. Selig. With new national television rights contracts with Fox, ESPN and Turner Sports worth about $670 million that kick in this season, Mr. Selig said baseball’s revenues will hit a record $5.6 billion this year, Mr. Selig said. When he became acting commissioner in 1992, baseball’s gross revenue was $1.2 billion.
“This is the golden era of baseball,” Mr. Selig said. “This sport has never been this popular.”
He ascribes that popularity to the fact that ball games are more available to fans than ever, through television and on the Web.
The league also recently secured agreements to launch its own cable channel with an unprecedented 40 million-plus subscribers.
“Sports go in cycles. Baseball is in a growing cycle,” said David Levy, president of Turner Sports, which this season begins airing post-season games on TBS.
The recent numbers indicate the game is not feeling any ill effects from the steroid controversy that blots the sports pages, said sports consultant Neal Pilson.
“The fans have moved on,” said Mr. Pilson. “The three indicators that measure public attention-attendance, ratings and sponsor support-remain very positive.”
Baseball has come back from a crippling strike by players in 1994. At that time it appeared a new generation was turning to video games and action sports. Baseball appeared to be at risk of becoming a tradition-rich anachronism.
Mr. Selig helped turn around baseball’s fortunes, said Fox Sports Chairman David Hill. In 2000, Mr. Selig started bringing top executives from baseball together with key people from the TV networks-as well as sponsors, academics, players and superfan George Will-to discuss all aspects of the game.
“I think what’s happening now is a direct result of that initiative that Bud took back in 2000,” Mr. Hill said.
The initiative resulted in a new willingness by baseball to allow television to make the game more interesting on TV.
“Years ago, baseball had the reputation for not being a good broadcast partner. And I think with all due respect, it was a fair critique of us,” Mr. Selig said.
Now cameras are allowed on the field and umpires and managers wear microphones.
“We are presenting the games in a very attractive way. That’s good,” he said.
The league came around on other fronts as well.
“They’re working with us to improve the schedule,” said Mr. Hill. “The games that go on television are just as important to MLB as they are to us.”
Baseball also is helping its broadcast partners by making changes in two of its crown jewels, the All-Star Game and the World Series.
Starting in 2003, the league that won the All-Star Game got home-field advantage in the World Series. That invested the All-Star game with relevance that had slipped among players and fans, Mr. Selig said.
“We finally made a decision, we needed to replace the intensity,” he said.
Ratings for last year’s All Star Game were up 15 percent. “Ratings will continue to grow. There’s no question in my mind,” he said.
This year’s World Series will start on a weeknight, rather than on Saturday, when viewership is low.
“Why shouldn’t the World Series’ ratings reflect how really popular this sport is in every way? We ought to put it on when it has the maximum potential to be watched by as many people as possible, and we were not doing that before,” Mr. Selig said.
The post-season games airing on TBS this year will be available only on cable, an exclusivity that was an important consideration in Turner’s decision to do a deal with baseball, said Mr. Levy.
Mr. Levy and Mr. Selig said they were not concerned about fans-or Congress-complaining that viewers without cable might not be able to see Red Sox or Mets playoff games.
Baseball has other plans for cable: Its own channel, due to launch with more than 40 million subscribers in 2009. TV has proved to be an important marketing tool for baseball, and Mr. Selig sees the new cable channel as another way to reach more viewers.
“We need to do everything that we can, as the universe changes, to have a channel where our fans can watch baseball or baseball-related activities 365 days a year, 24 hours a day,” Mr. Selig said.
The old-school thinking by baseball owners that broadcasting games would hurt ticket sales has been proved wrong, he said. “Every one of our games is on in one form or another, and look at the attendance and look at the television ratings. On the contrary, I think it’s helping us.”
MLB got carriage of its cable channel from major cable operators as part of a deal that kept DirecTV from getting exclusive rights to Extra Innings, baseball’s package of out-of-market games.
Baseball would have preferred the exclusive deal. Instead it got what may be the biggest channel launch in cable history, with more subscribers than the NFL Network or NBA TV.
“Leo Durocher, the famed old baseball manager, once said it’s better to be lucky than good, but I think we were both good, very good, and lucky,” Mr. Selig said.

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