Public Media and Baseball

A few weeks ago on a #pubmedia chat session on Twitter, I mention what has public media done well and what public media should add. I mention public media should add sports, but sports that fit to the public media culture. The sport that first came to mind is baseball. Not because public media needs baseball, but baseball needs a partner for the long run.

I was a decent baseball fan throughout my life. In 1999, I went to my first baseball game at Camden Yards when the Red Sox faced the Orioles. I was semi-interested, but the Orioles weren’t my team as I learned DC used to have a baseball team and got rejected from MLB owners (mostly Peter Angelos). I started to get into baseball fully when the Montreal Expos moved to Washington to become the Nationals in 2005. It was in 2008 that I understood how special baseball is.

I had partial season tickets to the Nats inaugural season at Nationals Park and attended 20 games. However, it was my trip to Chicago that I went to Wrigley Field for the White Sox-Cubs interleague rivalry and words can’t describe the experience as a tourist in Wrigley Field. I wanted to like baseball, but the Nats were stinking up the joint. Then when Stephen Strasburg arrived in Washington for his MLB debut last year, I understand how baseball is that magical.

Baseball every year has these magical moments. The problem I have with baseball is not the game (although there need to be tweaks, but that’s for a different post), but the broadcasting.

The problem with baseball announcing is that it is trying to excite you artificially or that they don’t care for the game. I’m looking at FOX, who bought a lot of money to get the MLB package, but from the looks of their broadcasting team, coverage, and theme music over the years, it seems like Fox put baseball in the back-burner. TBS are at the same boat since they’re in a network that shows comedies. ESPN is being ESPN.

In addition, youth baseball has been dropping every year since 1996 because sports like lacrosse and soccer have constant motion and have excitement, but in baseball, you stand there most of the time. I mostly blame that on managers (mostly parents) who want to be the alpha people among the teams by yelling and screaming, when the game requires patience, which most of us don’t have.

This brings me to public media, specifically PBS.

What baseball is missing in most broadcasts is storytelling. Baseball announcers are renowned for their voice and stories. Vin Scully comes to mind as a great broadcaster and storyteller. Without commercial breaks, PBS can use the middle and end of each inning to describe what is going on and why it matters and if the game is a blowout, a few stories to tell. The PBS broadcast would let the game flow dictate how to call it.

Another thing PBS can bring to baseball is the element of community. PBS affiliates do a great job promoting arts and culture to their local community. Teaming up with MLB and minor league baseball, not only you would get an engaged community, but a diverse community that is lacking in public media. In addition, you bring the 170 million Americans who contribute to public broadcasting and have something to unite.

If baseball came to PBS, it would eliminate the “elitist” label that public media perceived to have since baseball is a global sport. PBS has done some sports from golf, tennis, and Ivy League football, but those sports tend to be the high-end of the spectrum (to be fair, they did air the FIFA World Cup in 1982). Although baseball is played by world-class athletes, it’s the magical moment people want or do not want to believe that makes the sport special.

Finally, baseball has two things on their side: history and government. Baseball’s history is rich and with PBS having Ken Burns (Baseball, The Tenth Inning), the game can be preserved. Add to that, most government officials and politicians are still fond of baseball (1994 strike, steroid hearings involved the U.S. government). If baseball is struggling, MLB can rely on the U.S. government to help, possibly bring MLB back to the non-profit side. The U.S. government still allows the NFL to be a non-profit for some odd reason.

Baseball might be dropping like boxing and horse racing not because of steroids or parity in the field. The problem with baseball is networks like Fox, TBS and somewhat ESPN are trying to spice up baseball with graphics and hyperbole when the game doesn’t require it.

This is a perfect time for PBS and its affiliates to pony up and get baseball after the 2013 season, when MLB’s TV contract with Fox, TBS, and ESPN are up, to bring baseball back to life and give the sport its proper due.

Realistically…

MLB would want a big contract with the major broadcast and cable networks after 2013 and wouldn’t care about the long-term effects of the game. MLB are still thinking about being cool at the grown-up table instead of being the adult.

PBS and their affiliates do not have the resources to pay a quarter of what MLB is asking and really can’t do anything except do stories and make documentaries about baseball. In addition, who pays for the TV rights: PBS, PBS affiliates, a third party?

Public broadcasting and baseball would have been a great relationship because both need each other and would fill each other’s weaknesses. It would be similar to hockey in Canada with TSN doing the heavy load of the work and CBC handling the major hockey events (Winter/Heritage Classic, All-Star game, Stanley Cup Final). Instead, greed will always win in baseball and some in the public media audience would not appreciate baseball as an art form. That’s a shame on both accounts.

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