Reynolds Rap

Analyzing the TBS-MLB Network Postseason Telecast Trade

5/19/2012 7:56 AM

In sports and other endeavors, it takes time to evaluate trades.

At first blush, though, Major League Baseball’s move to put the two new Wild Card games on TBS in 2012 and 2013, with its in-house service picking up a pair of Division Series contests during both of those postseasons, is a win-win for all the players, if not all hardball fans.

Under MLB’s first playoff change since 1995 when the six-division, eight-team structure was adopted, a second Wild Card squad in each league is being invited to the postseason. The Wild Card teams will square off in a one-game showdown, with the winner moving on to the Division Series.

According to The New York Times, TBS, which has televised all four Division Series, one of the League Championship Series and a Sunday-afternoon, regular-season package since the 2007 campaign, paid a net of $10 million per year on top of its $140 million annual outlay, for the Wild Card winner-take-all affairs. The “very funny” network also ceded a pair of its Division Series contests to baseball, which shifted them to MLB Network.

For TBS, the gambit figures to give it a chance to stoke the Nielsens with a pair of high-stakes contests on Oct. 5, the ability to up-sell its MLB advertising inventory and perhaps give it a leverage edge during negotiations for its next rights deal.

While not a bats-to-bats comparison, recent regular-season tiebreaker games have drawn strong cable numbers for TBS, which retains the rights to any such contests through 2013.  In 2009, Twins-Tigers scored a 4.2 U.S. rating and 6.5 million watchers, the 2008 meeting between the Twins-White Sox posted a 2.7 rating and 4.2 million watchers and the 2007 classic between the Rockies-Padres recorded a 2.5 and just under 4 million watchers late into the night.

Those games compare well with Turner’s 2011 Division Series average of 4.19 million viewers over 19 contests. Despite going the distance in three of the four best-of-five matchups and connecting with an audience of 7 million for Game 4 of Yankees-Tigers, 8.4 million for Game 5 of Cardinals-Phillies and an all-time cable DS-best 9.7 million when Detroit took out New York in Game 5 in The Bronx, Turner couldn’t overcome a sluggish, rain-interrupted start and a schedule that matched the DS with college and pro football on its first weekend. DS viewership declined 6% from 4.4 million in 2010 and 12% from nearly 4.8 million in 2009.

For MLB Network having the two DS games in its lineup is pretty heady stuff for just a fourth-year player. Although it has yet to be determined when it will be pitching and who will be providing the on-air analysis, MLB Network will produce the games and have its top play-by-play guys, Bob Costas and Matt Vasgersian, on the hill.

It also speaks to what MLB Network and CEO Tony Petitti told me in a recent interview that MLB was looking to add unique content. In a statement Friday, Petitti said: “We are very excited to produce and air two LDS games on MLB Network this season and next. We’re now in our fourth year on the air and this announcement marks the beginning of a new phase for MLB Network in which we’ll look to secure more important live content and continue to grow our distribution.”

Currently, MLB Network, which has deals with all top 10 distributors and launched an ad hoc scoring service at the start of the 2012 campaign, counts some 69 million subscribers, having added some 13 million homes over the past year or so. That puts it well atop the league-owned network affiliate standings, but the channel remains some 30 million short of MLB’s other national cable carriers TBS and ESPN, and 45 million behind broadcaster Fox.

MLB executive vice president of business Tim Brosnan told USA Today: “We think we have an opportunity to pick up more homes before the postseason — that’s our goal.”

Certainly, the DS games are attractive and may prompt some additional in-season rollouts, bolstering the value of baseball’s hometown service — SNL Kagan estimates MLB Network’s subscriber fee at 25 cents per month — in the process. But carriage action tends to unfold very slowly these days.

Should it get stuck on the distribution basepaths, MLB Network and fans may be best served by making a call to the affiliate bullpen in the way of a freeview the week it airs its DS duo. That roster expansion will mitigate the cries that some fans will be shut out of the games and give those who don’t get the service the opportunity to see how outstanding it is. That’s a nice calling card to have.

MLB Network may have even a stronger hand when commissioner Bud Selig and crew hash out baseball’s TV roster over the next couple of years: The current national contracts with Fox, TBS and ESPN expire with the 2013 campaign. That bit of trading, which also could turn on a pitch from the NBC Sports Group, will merit even more analysis.