SBJ/Oct. 28-Nov. 3, 2013/Leagues and Governing Bodies

MLB weathers slings and arrows of October

Baseball fights annual gripes that accompany postseason

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There are regular signs of autumn that are traditional and comfortable: leaves turning, pumpkins on porches, cooler temperatures.

And then there is the now-annual torrent of media bickering over whether Major League Baseball is a dying entity, arriving squarely — and inconveniently — in the heart of the sport’s postseason.

The arguments, for the most part, are the same each year. Baseball is accused of having playoff games that start too late and end too late; that are much too long and are too regional in nature; that are too dull, appeal too much to older audiences; and that fall right in the midst of an NFL season that pushes it off the front pages.

This year has been no exception. The New York Times recently wondered why baseball “feels so irrelevant.” The Philadelphia Inquirer called the World Series “a curious relic from another era.” The Atlanta Journal-Constitution wrote baseball is “far from our national pastime anymore.” Fox News ran a prominent segment on baseball “striking out” among mainstream sports fans.

On and on the criticism goes.

Much of the yearly backlash seems to be gut-based opinion and runs counter to facts. Major indices for baseball such as attendance, revenue, regional and national TV rights, sponsorship and merchandise sales, online traffic, franchise values, and labor health are all at or near record levels, with no signs of reversal in the near future — and in many instances, showing steady growth.

But the autumnal accusations are pervasive and present an operational and PR challenge for MLB. There are hundreds of hours of combined staff time devoted each fall, particularly in public relations, to combating the sky-is-falling talk. Key rights holders such as Fox Sports are similarly put on the defensive. Through it all, the league must seek to strike a delicate balance in its public positioning: fighting back without seeming overly defensive. All in all, it’s a difficult position to be in.

“Some stories are best just not addressed, but you still have to pay attention to everything, particularly at the height of our commercial season,” said one baseball insider who requested anonymity because of the sensitivities around the topic. “It’s difficult sometimes because the analysis that’s applied is often so wrong.”

Even through this postseason featuring close series, high drama, household names and solid television ratings, MLB still found itself on the defensive. Much of that is based primarily, if not entirely, on national-level TV ratings during baseball’s postseason. It’s certainly there that the critics have the most ammunition, as World Series ratings for last year’s San Francisco-Detroit matchup, a four-game sweep for the Giants, fell to an all-time low average of 12.7 million viewers.

In addition, three of the lowest-viewed World Series in history have come within the last five years. The event as a whole has slipped considerably in viewership over the past decade as the entire entertainment landscape has splintered. ESPN’s Keith Olbermann devoted a five-minute segment on his show last Wednesday, the night of Game 1 of the World Series, to this dynamic, stating, “We begin with the World Series, which you’re not watching. … Major League Baseball has managed to basically kill off what was not just this country’s greatest sporting event, but its ultimate nonpolitical shared national experience.”

Also, last year’s World Series drew a median viewer age of 53 years old, much higher than comparable championships in the other U.S. pro leagues.

But it’s not just previous internal comparisons that present a PR challenge for MLB.  With the NFL season in full swing during the World Series and continually posting the highest TV ratings in all of American television, it makes for easy comparisons and fodder for critics. Such correlations will continue when the World Series will compete with football for viewers on as many as four of seven nights. There is also the strength of college football that nicks at baseball’s postseason, and perhaps most importantly, the fact that MLB plays its postseason directly competing against first-run programming on competing networks, something not applicable to any other major sport.

While details of the league’s PR and response plans are scarce, baseball and Fox Sports spend considerable resources to publicly advance the notion that any individual World Series rating, good or bad, is not a singular litmus test on the overall health of the league.

“Any consideration of engagement and relevancy that doesn’t include digital these days just isn’t complete,” said Bob Bowman, MLB Advanced Media president and chief executive, and one of the few executives who would talk on the record on this subject. “Really, what we’re after is a broader definition of engagement that goes beyond just TV and into all forms of media.”

Still, MLB, the MLB Players Association and the league’s network TV partners have steadily sought to infuse the sport’s broadcasts with enhancements such as new camera angles and players’ wearing microphones. Part of the prevailing theory behind the collaboration is that if those enhancements can bring viewers closer to the game and its players, ratings will improve and the criticism will lessen.

“We’re certainly aware of the things being said and written out there,” said Tim Slavin, MLBPA director of business affairs and licensing. “And, of course, a lot of it doesn’t match up with how we see the business, and growth we see in the business. But we’re continually having conversations with the league about how we can enhance our game and our game broadcasts without compromising the integrity of the game. The key thing for us there is balance. And it’s been what we think is a pretty healthy dialogue.”

World Series game start times are a particular target, as many media believe MLB starts its championship games too late and in the process is disenfranchising younger fans. But such arguments ignore years of ratings data showing even younger demos watch in greater numbers during close games late at night. In addition, other events such as the NBA Finals and the NCAA men’s basketball title game have had much later start times. Few point to the fact that MLB in 2010 tried a 7 p.m. ET start time for Game 3 of the World Series to disastrous results. Since then, its games have hovered around 8 p.m. ET.

Fox Sports, of course, remains actively involved in the development of the playoff TV schedule and in favor of the current start times.

“We have a TV partner. They pay us a lot of money, and we’d like to make them happy,” said MLB Commissioner Bud Selig earlier this year.

Social media also has been a big part of baseball’s response to the October doomsday predictions.  MLB has been much more aggressive in spotlighting the celebrity involvement in baseball, such as its recent run of Hollywood stars at playoff games, something the sport is accused of lacking.

And both MLB and Fox Sports each day during the postseason have actively tweeted out regular tune-in prompts, in-game spotlights of key plays and ratings data following each game.

The amount of activity baseball devotes to developing content tailored for social media, particularly video, is accelerating. And during last week’s World Series games in Boston, a league staffer wondered aloud to a reporter, somewhat in jest, whether his time just then would have been better spent on Twitter creating additional posts.

“Are we doing enough?” the staffer said. “It’s something I continually ask myself, because you never want to get satisfied.”

Satisfaction for baseball may only come when it begins to somehow quiet the din that tries to drag down its Octobers to remember.

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