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Volume 20 No. 42
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ESPN’s 25th year of MLB games comes with schedule flexibility

ESPN is about to embark on its 25th season of carrying Major League Baseball games with a new rights deal that will see several changes in the way the channel covers the games.

The new eight-year, $5.6 billion deal gives ESPN more flexibility in picking games, allowing it to focus even more on teams that deliver the best TV ratings. Take its exclusive “Sunday Night Baseball” franchise, for example. A specific team can appear six times on Sunday nights. In previous years, the same team could not appear on “Sunday Night Baseball” more than five times.

ESPN will be able to focus even more on teams that deliver the best ratings.

All told, teams can have 10 of their games carried by ESPN this season across Monday, Wednesday and Sunday nights.

“You can still expect us to maximize our Yankees and Red Sox and Dodgers and Cardinals appearances within ‘Sunday Night Baseball,’” said Julie Sobieski, ESPN vice president of league sports programming and acquisitions. “But it also means that we have the ability to take all the teams.”

The new deal should allow ESPN to bring more teams outside of the league’s marquee markets onto its schedule, Sobieski said.

“The Pittsburgh Pirates are probably the best example,” she said. “You’re going to see them a considerable amount of time on Mondays and Wednesdays.”

The added flexibility will be best seen later in the season, when ESPN can add pennant race games. Under the new deal, the network can add two games per week during the last two weeks of the season. Plus, it has the rights to any tiebreaker games and a wild-card game.

“It’s significant for us to have more baseball and more baseball at a time of year when everyone’s paying attention to the playoff implications,” Sobieski said.

MLB largely has done away with blackouts on Monday and Wednesday nights. As opposed to past years, ESPN will coexist with the local regional sports networks that are carrying the game.

“We’re now going to be able to reach fans on Mondays and Wednesdays in markets that we haven’t been able to reach them in the past,” Sobieski said.

To celebrate its 25th season of “Sunday Night Baseball,” ESPN will turn “Baseball Tonight” into a pregame show. The network will rebrand its Sunday show as “Baseball Tonight Sunday Night Countdown” and will travel to the site of most Sunday night games. That move makes the show similar to ESPN’s popular pregame shows associated with the NFL (“NFL Countdown”) and the NBA (“NBA Countdown”).

In another nod to its 25th season covering the sport, ESPN has produced a series of vignettes that will focus on the best on-field moments over the past 25 years.