The major-league-baseball contract post-mortem

I don’t understand what baseball was doing in its negotiations for a new broadcast contract. Leave it to baseball to screw things up once again.

First, they told Fox that FX wasn’t good enough and it needed an all-sports network to be a serious contender, but then later apparently decided it didn’t want to prop up NBC’s own sports network, while also allowing TBS, which is almost exactly equivalent to FX (especially since all of Turner’s other non-NCAA Tournament sports are on TNT) to continue to even sniff baseball rights.

Then, they allowed ESPN to sign their agreement in advance and lock up all three of its existing packages – despite the fact that this would effectively eliminate NBC as a contender, since they were too smart to overpay for the shitty Sunday afternoon package, and reduce Fox and Turner’s interest for the same reason.

Then, they made a lot of noise about unifying not only the Saturday and Sunday afternoon packages, but the entire postseason with a single partner, going so far as to tell ESPN they would take their single wild card game and like it. And since they weren’t going to accept Turner’s CBS-alliance scheme, where CBS got the World Series, All-Star Game, some odd LCS games, and exactly zero regular season games, that meant that the contract was Fox’s to lose.

But wait! It turned out that, again, Fox wasn’t dumb enough to pay through the nose for the shitty Sunday afternoon package either! So when Turner refused to go away, not wanting to let go of TBS’ baseball legacy through its long history of Braves games, MLB ended up accepting a deal that amounts to the status quo.

The differences? Fox will now have a doubleheader of games each Saturday, so its all-sports network will have either one or two games each week, except I can pretty much guarantee that in weeks it has just one, it’ll be worse than the Sunday afternoon package; Fox gets back in the division series, splitting with TBS in similar fashion to the LCS’s and sending two games to MLB Network; and TBS gets co-exists for its Sunday afternoon games, so it won’t be blacked out in the home markets of the teams, except that means absolutely nothing because no one even knew TBS had regular season games going up against local games and everything else in sports Sunday afternoons… and TBS will now only have games the last three months of the season, so the problem where TBS seems to come from out of nowhere to take over the postseason will now get even worse!

What the hell? Why didn’t ESPN come back into play when it became clear that MLB was going to have to split up the postseason after all? Heck, ESPN and Fox could have had a league split running right through the wild card, division, and league championship series before Fox takes over the whole World Series. Sure, ESPN would probably have had even less interest in the Sunday afternoon package, but then those games would have gone to MLB Network where they belong, which is surely a boon to that network – and more important, it would have been better for baseball as a whole. Hardcore baseball fans with Extra Innings may be rejoicing over the end of blackouts of out-of-market Fox games (which I don’t think will amount to as much as you might think with Fox’s decreased inventory), but this may be even more confusing for the casual fan than the old agreement; TBS still comes from out of nowhere to take over the postseason, and ESPN shows up for the tiebreakers and one wild card game and then completely disappears. The shambling corpse of TBS’ old Braves package just will not die despite being pumped full of lead repeatedly, using the postseason as a shield. What was baseball thinking? It couldn’t have been this.

I think that, for all the money baseball raked in with this deal, they left money on the table by being too hasty to accept ESPN’s Godfather offer to keep all its existing packages in order to box out NBC. I bet baseball could have more than made up the difference in heightened interest from three partners for whatever ESPN left on the table. It didn’t end up working out very well for ESPN either; besides whiffing on its attempt to get more than one measly wild-card game, ESPN must surely know at this point that Fox’s potential all-sports network is a bigger threat than NBC’s, and as such its best play is to pit the two against one another so that both are left with a fraction of what ESPN has and unable to gain much ground, but there isn’t even any evidence that they lent any support to the Turner/CBS alliance scheme. Instead they continue to be so myopically focused on NBC that they keep handing contracts into Fox’s lap! They’ve managed to kill everyone else, but like a poor marksman, they keep! Missing! The target! KHAAAAANNNNNNN!!!!!!!!

Fox continues to be the only outfit with much sense in the sports TV wars. The baseball contract is the crown jewel for an outfit that already has plenty of programming to hit the ground running with an all-sports network. The last piece will come when Fox finishes its early renewal of the NASCAR contract, giving the network Sprint Cup races, the All-Star Race, and possibly Nationwide and Truck races. (I’ve heard that NASCAR isn’t thinking about a NASCAR network anymore, but unless it wants to foist practice and qualifying on its other partners, I don’t see Fox wanting to keep it on an all-sports network every week.)

NBC, meanwhile, now turns to NASCAR as its last real chance to get a killer app for NBC Sports Network, with the Big Ten awaiting as a last resort, but it may already be too late for them to catch Fox. All their numerous bells and whistles of side programming, from NBC SportsTalk to Costas Tonight to NFL Turning Point to Caught Looking to Sports Illustrated to The Lights, may ultimately be all for naught, a way to cover up the network’s lack of real programming; they may have given NBC a head start on infrastructure, but Fox may want to have all its infrastructure in place from the start, given their acquisition of baseball rights for a nightly highlights show. The NHL may be regretting not shacking up with Fox when it had the chance.

All five contenders in the sports TV wars have their count go up by one because ESPN, NBCSN, and CBSSN just signed a new agreement with the Atlantic 10 at the same time. Most basketball games go on NBCSN and CBSSN, with ESPN getting the conference tournament finals with, curiously, the semis on CBSSN and the quarters on NBCSN. The PBR and Mountain West recognize that NBCSN > CBSSN. Why doesn’t the Atlantic 10?

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