Rethinking the rest of the Major League Baseball contract

Suddenly ESPN’s agreement with Major League Baseball makes a lot more sense, because of an arrangement I knew about but hadn’t anticipated.

The New York Times is reporting that CBS and Turner, evoking their NCAA Tournament marriage, have formed an alliance to try to win the baseball rights. I had laid out a potential CBS/Turner marriage as a possible dark-horse option for the NASCAR contract, but I had figured that such an alliance was impractical and unnecessary in baseball, especially with CBS’ own existing commitments and successful primetime. This means that the scenario I had laid out as the favorite on Tuesday, essentially a maintenance of the status quo, may now be a nonstarter, as TBS neither needs nor probably wants Fox to be the broadcast partner. Under the circumstances, that makes such an alliance a very strong contender to kick Fox out of the sport, one that could box NBC out entirely.

Perhaps more interesting, though, CBS reportedly only wants the All-Star Game and World Series, which evokes shades of NBC’s post-Baseball Network contract in the mid-late 90s, an arrangement I hadn’t thought would be repeated. That tells me that TBS isn’t dumb enough to take the crappy Sunday afternoon package again, which means it might be moving to MLB Network after all. No, TBS has their sights set on a far bigger prize, the big enchilada, Fox’s current main Saturday contract. Even with one game each week compared to ESPN’s three, that, coupled with TBS’ considerable postseason coverage (though I still expect ESPN to get a piece of the Division Series and maybe even an LCS), would instantly cement TBS as the main baseball broadcaster, similar to TNT’s place in the NBA contract. I had described the “ESPN/TBS” scenario as the worst-case scenario for people wanting an ESPN competitor, but while it is bad for NBC and horrible for Fox, it may well be the best scenario for baseball fans, who lose Joe Buck, Tim McCarver, and the infamous blackouts of out-of-market Fox games – that last being something I couldn’t promise with NBC.

On the other hand, if MLB is seriously considering not putting a single regular season game on national broadcast television, they’re once again proving how out-of-touch they are. Leave it to MLB to find a way to be the first professional league to sign a contract as cable-reliant as the BCS and NCAA Tournament deals despite the anti-trust exemption hanging over their heads. Combine that with the monopoly many regional sports networks have over teams’ games, and many fans without cable might be utterly unable to see any baseball games other than the All-Star Game and World Series all year long. (Incidentally, the All-Star Game seems like it’d be an even weirder fit on CBS than it would Fox, since it’d be the only game on CBS for months. I don’t see any reason not to put it on TBS; is the ASG covered by the anti-trust exemption threat too?)

That leaves me hesitant to proclaim the CBS/Turner alliance the new favorite; after putting up Tuesday’s post, I realized it actually did make some sense to put the Sunday afternoon game on FX, though a Fox Sports network is still a non-starter (to the point that Fox retaining the baseball contract might now be a bad sign for its chances of launching a network). But despite the lack of broadcast presence, it is the scenario that makes the most sense to me. And it certainly makes enough sense that it probably murders what little chance NBC still had to win the baseball contract, which has to send NBC panicking; after all its commitment to sports, NBC may now find itself the only broadcast network without a presence in the three non-NFL modern major sports, potentially setting up some cruel NHL jokes at NBC’s expense (“it’s appropriate that the NHL is on NBC because…”) and placing a massive premium on winning a piece of the NASCAR contract.

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