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The veteran vs. the upstart
Published July 12, 2010
Bobby Valentine couldn’t believe his eyes. Sitting in a basement conference room at ESPN’s Bristol, Conn., headquarters as the June 29 MLB games were starting, the former MLB manager was riveted to one of the room’s 11 flat-screen televisions. He stood from his chair and focused his attention on FS Florida’s coverage of the Mets-Marlins game from San Juan, Puerto Rico.
It was the game’s first inning, and the telecast aired a clip of Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria in the dugout before the game. In the clip, Loria was telling interim manager Edwin Rodriguez that he would remain the team’s manager.
Valentine had interviewed for that job and was considered a front-runner. By the time the clip aired, he already knew he wasn’t getting the job, but the scene of the Marlins players gathering in the dugout around Loria and Rodriguez was a blow to Valentine, and he reacted impulsively.
“I can’t believe this,” he exclaimed to a room of around a dozen employees and on-air talent preparing for the nightly “Baseball Tonight” broadcast. “That’s not where he [Loria] told me he was.”
“Are you saying that he lied?” asked John Kruk, a .300 hitter over a decade as major leaguer and now one of the ESPN show’s most popular baseball analysts.
“I’m just saying that he told me he was in a different place than where I just saw him,” Valentine said.
He grabbed his cell phone and left the room. He returned a few minutes later, still fixated on the Mets-Marlins game on the screen.
The conference room scene was not on camera, and it was not referenced on the air. But for ESPN brass, the scene illustrates why they believe “Baseball Tonight” is still the go-to show for avid baseball fans: because ESPN’s analysts still are making headlines in the sport.
After 20 years of being the only game in town, ESPN finds itself facing nightly competition now from rival MLB Network’s two-year-old nightly offering, “MLB Tonight.” Bristol keeps a wary eye on the baseball network based just to its south, in Secaucus, N.J. Launched in January 2009, MLB Network poached at least five senior executives from ESPN before its debut and set up its signature “MLB Tonight” to compete with “Baseball Tonight.” To make the competition a little more odd, ESPN is the broadcast rights holder, while MLB Network is owned by the body that granted those rights.
The day-in, day-out nature of the 162-game MLB season makes this another baseball race worth watching, even with ESPN’s huge lead in households and ratings. While ESPN hasn’t overhauled its programming strategy in response to MLB Network’s launch, the new competition has affected certain selections and decisions by the network to keep its show fresh and informative.
For Norby Williamson, ESPN’s executive vice president of production, the key to those decisions starts with the talent. He has tried to blend former managers and recently retired players with seasoned baseball journalists, like Buster Olney and Tim Kurkjian. Williamson takes pride in the fact that the ex-managers on “Baseball Tonight,” like Valentine and Buck Showalter, are interviewing for current managerial openings. He likes that some of show’s player/analysts, like Aaron Boone and Nomar Garciaparra, competed against MLBers who are still playing.
The show’s star is clearly the curmudgeonly Kruk, who has a reputation for being both blunt and hard-hitting. Karl Ravech, host since 1995, keeps the show at a quick pace and tries to draw out the analysts.
It’s a makeup that has worked for the past 20 years. And even with strong competition from MLB Network, ESPN clearly sees its roster of on-air talent as its biggest selling point.
The View from Secaucus
The same day as Valentine’s Mets-Marlins viewing, about 110 miles south, MLB Network talent was preparing at its Secaucus studios for the jammed MLB schedule with the usual 2 p.m. talent meeting.
On hand were Harold Reynolds, Peter Gammons, Tom Verducci and Matt Vasgersian of the net’s nightly “MLB Tonight” show. The subject of the managerial openings in Baltimore and Florida came up. “Buck Martinez [a candidate for the Orioles job] called me while I was running. He’s already working on lineups,” Gammons said.
Later, MLB Network confirms the Marlins story the same way ESPN does: by hearing about it on the Marlins’ regional broadcast.
After serious injuries the night before to players as skilled as Philadelphia’s all-star Chase Utley and possible rookie of the year Jason Heyward of Atlanta, Reynolds wants to get at the underlying story. Both injuries happened on head-first slides. Veteran MLB writer Verducci calls it “the worst play in baseball.” Reynolds adds that while players like Pete Rose and all-time stolen base leader Rickey Henderson popularized the belly-flop slide, it is something that’s never practiced — even in spring training.
A moment later, news comes to the conference room via BlackBerry that Utley and third baseman Placido Polanco, also a likely Philllies all-star, have been placed on the DL.
Injuries have moved themselves up to be one of the day’s top stories on both “MLB Tonight” and “Baseball Tonight.”
In an attempt to further explain the severity of a thumb injury, another tangential story line is developing. The two-handed swing traditionally favored by MLB hitters, including Heyward, is almost impossible to complete with a bad thumb. A swing like Alex Rodriguez’s — one that ends with one hand on the bat — is not as affected by a thumb injury.
Later that night, “MLB Tonight” takes the discussion from the conference room to the TV studio. Reynolds shows dubious value of the head-first slide, and Barry Larkin illustrates the one-handed and two-handed swings in separate segments done on the studio’s 9,600-square-foot MLB Park, festooned with branding from league sponsors like State Farm and Nike.
“Our promise here is simple,” said Mary Beck, MLB Network senior vice president of marketing, who engineered the brand’s launch last year. “If you like baseball, you don’t need to go anywhere else.”
On ESPN, “Baseball Tonight” addressed the injuries with a three-minute segment from its “injury analyst,” Stephania Bell. She used a model of a human elbow to explain how Tigers pitcher Joel Zumaya, yet another recent injury victim, fractured a bone, offering her best projection at when he could come back to pitch.
The way the two shows handled the injury bug illustrates one of the main selling points of “MLB Tonight.” MLB Network has more time to devote to topics than ESPN, which allows it to get deeper into topics.
This theme of delving deeper into topics clearly emerges in Secaucus. Later that night, Reynolds and Verducci drill down into personnel. Every baseball observer marvels at Cincinnati’s Scott Rolen hitting 17 home runs and batting .296 at the age of 35. Reynolds notes the homer-happy parks in NL Central. Verducci sees it in more purely economic terms, noting that other teams are losing bets on 35-plus-aged players like the Phillies with Raul Ibanez and the Orioles with Miguel Tejada.
Because it’s on from the first pitch to the last pitch of the night, MLB Network uses full advantage of cutting into games in-progress, something ESPN hasn’t been allowed to do. ESPN has general in-progress highlight rights within “Baseball Tonight” and can cut into games only during no-hitters or other record-setting performances.
“You have to admire what ESPN built in ‘Baseball Tonight,’ but I don’t see the comparison,” said Reynolds, one of many former ESPNers now in the employ of MLB Network. ESPN parted ways with Reynolds in 2006 after a personnel issue. “We’re in a different ballpark. … Their shows are an hour long. Ours do have beginning and endings, but to me it’s just covering that night in baseball until it’s over [and] sometimes, that’s an afternoon through to 1 a.m.”
ESPN counters with the breadth of its offerings. It started producing “Baseball Tonight” year-round last winter, adding half-hour shows on weekday afternoons in response to MLB Network’s launch. It also placed the biggest stars of “Baseball Tonight” on other programs in the ESPN empire and installed cameras in the homes of its top reporters, Olney and Kurkjian, so they can go on-air whenever news breaks in baseball.
“Years ago, you would have never seen Buster Olney or Tim Kurkjian doing live shots at 9 a.m. from their houses,” said Mark Gross, ESPN’s senior vice president and managing editor of studio production. “Now, they’re on almost every day.”
ESPN is complementing that kind of surround approach with highlights that extend beyond home runs and strikeouts.
Take the June 29 show, for example. Mariners pitcher Cliff Lee was starting at Yankee Stadium. Lee had been on the trading block, so “Baseball Tonight” producers decided to show the difference between Lee’s fastball and cutter via a single at-bat. The result was two-minute segment where Kruk used a technology called Virtual Pitch and game highlights to illustrate how Lee used his cutter to induce a ground out from Yankees slugger Mark Teixeira.
Jay Levy, senior coordinating producer of “Baseball Tonight,” said these kinds of in-depth highlights are what set ESPN’s show apart from MLB Network’s.
“MLB Network basically serves the fan that wants to get all the updates and see the games in progress,” he said. “If you tune into ‘Baseball Tonight’ on a given night, you may actually know a lot of the results, but you want more. Their show serves one purpose for the baseball fan. Hopefully, ours serve another purpose.”
Indeed, those two approaches highlight the main contrasts of the programs. “MLB Tonight” is totally dedicated to MLB and has more time to deal with any subject at hand — no matter how detailed. In the second inning of one that evening’s early games, MLB Network analysts debate on-air about whether to send a runner. “Baseball Tonight” normally doesn’t air until around 10 p.m., so that type of debate will never make the air at Bristol.
“You’ll find plenty of coverage on teams like the Pirates and Royals here because we have more time to get more involved,” said John Entz, MLB Network senior vice president of production, another ESPN refugee. As for the inevitable “Baseball Tonight” comparisons? “I don’t think anyone here worries about them,” he said. “We watch them because we’re sports fans, but we’re a much different animal.”
MLB Network cuts into a live look-in showing the Reds’ Joey Votto slugging a two-out, three-run homer tying the Phillies in the ninth inning. ESPN shows its highlight minutes after the fact. The look-in validates MLB Network as the game’s nightly “war room,” but network President and CEO Tony Petitti rejects the notion that he’s running a highlights machine.
“We go farther and deeper because we have the time to do it,” he says, supervising that night’s production from a chair in the back of the master control room that has around 30 monitors carrying all of that night’s MLB games in progress. “Deep is the word.”
Part of going farther and deeper is getting out to the parks before anyone else. At 5:25 p.m. ET, “Batting Practice Live” provides a scene-setter via robotic cameras in 15 parks controlled from Secaucus. This is the stuff many heavy users can’t get anywhere else, since pregame shows are generally not included in MLB’s “Extra Innings” package. The possible trade of Seattle’s Lee is discussed over a shot of Derek Jeter taking batting practice at Yankee Stadium. The fact that the visiting team has won every game between Boston and Tampa Bay is reviewed before the Red Sox host the Rays at Fenway Park.
Live look-ins before and during the games are a hallmark of MLB Network’s nightly shows.
“We’re not replacing home-team coverage, but outside of that, we like to think we’ve created a different way to watch baseball,” said Bill Morningstar, MLB Network’s executive vice president of ad sales.
Overall, “Baseball Tonight” has a much higher viewership than “MLB Tonight,” as well it should. It’s a proven brand hit that has been on the air for 18 more years than “MLB Tonight.” In addition, ESPN is in almost 100 million homes compared with MLB Network’s 55 million.
However — and perhaps it’s because of the famously short attention span of this generation — MLB Network has its own nice story to tell in the number of 18- to 34-year-old males watching it. That number has grown 86 percent from the second quarter of 2009 to the second quarter of this year.
Apparently, these fans like consuming the game in bite-sized chunks.
“We are becoming a destination for fans when something big is happening,” said Morningstar, citing Roy Halladay’s perfect game and Stephen Strasburg’s debut, which pulled an all-time high viewership of 588,000 viewers.
Not Valentine’s Day
Back in Bristol, the subject of Valentine’s managerial moves was not broached in the 45-minute production meeting that wrapped up around two hours before the first pitch of the night. Nobody knew it would be a big topic at that time.
Minutes before that evening’s slate of games started, it became apparent that the show would have to address the situation. Just before 7 p.m., Valentine confirmed to ESPN’s Olney that he wasn’t getting the job.
Olney posted a story on ESPN.com.
At that time, the show’s host, Ravech, started thinking about the questions he would ask Valentine on-air. Ravech would not share the questions with Valentine, but the former manager knew he would have to talk about it on-air.
What followed was, arguably, the most interesting segment of the night. Unlike MLB Network, the show did not air the clip of Loria in the dugout. Ravech probed and got Valentine to hint at the frustration he felt in not landing the Marlins job.
“If this was a major league process, I hope I’m never in the process again,” Valentine said from the studio. “It was very disturbing. Confusing. It was insulting, at times. But it’s over.”
That interview is exactly what Williamson wants from “Baseball Tonight.” He’s looking for talent that will be in the news and will have to talk about it on ESPN.
“Whether I get Bobby Valentine for three months or three years, when he’s on our air, is he making the sports fan smarter?” Williamson asked. “At some point, he’s going to go manage. [“Monday Night Football” analyst] Jon Gruden’s going to go coach. [NBA analyst Jeff] Van Gundy’s going to go coach, probably. So what? When they are on our air, they are open to being objective and being critical. They are educating our viewers.”