News

ESPN Adds Weekday Baseball Games

3/24/2002 7:00 PM Eastern

ESPN will be the exclusive cable home for national, regular-season Major League Baseball games after it inherited Fox Cable Networks' two cable baseball packages as part of parent Walt Disney Co.'s acquisition of the former Fox Family last year.

ESPN will add 50 games — weekly Monday night and Wednesday afternoon telecasts — to its MLB game schedule, while sister service ABC Family will air select post-season contests.

The odd network out is FX, losing national Saturday-night baseball games.

Disney bought Fox Cable Networks' $100-million baseball package as part of its $5.2-billion acquisition of Fox Family. Last year, Fox carried weekly Thursday and Saturday night games on Fox Family and FX.

General-entertainment network FX, which averaged a 0.4 rating for its 2001 weekly Saturday night primetime baseball telecasts, now features National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing (NASCAR) as its main sports staple.

FX executives would not comment on the matter.

The new games will join ESPN's exclusive Sunday night game and Wednesday night doubleheader schedule. Combined, ESPN and ESPN2 will air approximately 160 baseball games this season.

CURIOUS CALL

ESPN's decision to add more games is curious, considering that several years ago ESPN reduced the number of its weekly baseball exposures in an effort to improve ratings and ad sales efforts.

Last year, ESPN averaged a 1.23 rating for its regular-season games, about 2 percent below its Nielsen Media Research average for 2000. But network senior vice president of programming John Wildhack said the Monday night and Wednesday afternoon games will ultimately provide greater value to ESPN's overall baseball package.

"The Wednesday afternoon games will clearly lift our ratings during that time period, and will give us terrific boost and a great lead-in for our news and informational programming from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m.," he said.

"Monday night is a proven night for sports programming, and its strengthens our overall programming portfolio, as well as our baseball portfolio."

Meanwhile, ABC Family will retain the post-season games that were featured last year under the Fox Family moniker — but ESPN will produce the games, as well as handle all ad sales efforts for the telecasts.

Fox Family averaged a 2.3 rating for eight American League and National League Division Series games in 2001 — nearly a six-fold jump from the 0.4 average the network posted with its Thursday night package of regular-season games.

PROMOTIONAL PLAYS

But this time around, ABC Family will not have the benefit of the regular season to help build awareness for its playoff telecasts.

Still, ABC Family president Maureen Smith expected viewers would ultimately find the high-profile playoff games on ABC Family, especially with help from ESPN's heavy promotional efforts.

"The playoffs are so special, that people will seek them out and find them," Smith said. "This year we will see the power of the Walt Disney platform to help promote the games. ESPN will help promote the games, as well as spots on other Disney entities, so [the package] will probably do better this year than last year."

October