Big League Stew - MLB

Every so often, the two Head Stewards — Kevin Kaduk and David Brown — like to have a little argument over IM and email. The result is The Stewards Debate, a feature that brings their bickering to the masses. Today's topic is the ever-present question on whether Major League Baseball can do anything to fix its falling TV ratings.

'Duk: Aloha, Mr. Dave! It's sure been a long time since we put our debating hats on, but I'm feeling loose and limber, so let's have at it. The other day, Bud Selig said he was sure going to try and raise baseball's national television ratings, which have been flagging as badly as Vin Diesel's acting career. The Commish suggested a bunch of bad ideas for resuscitating the Nielsen ratings which included — and I swear I'm not making this up — showing more baseball movies on FX (a channel I'm not even sure I have any more) and more promotional ads with Joe Buck and Tim McCarver (kill me now).

Our pals over at Walkoff Walk say there's no solution to the falling ratings because people's entertainment options have increased a billionfold. I agree with the sentiment, but do think there are some good ways out there that they could attract more viewers while not upsetting the hardcore fan. What say you?

David Brown: Sex, foul language, violence. Those are the three food groups of a successful entertainment diet and somehow I don't see the Game of the Week morphing into something akin to Fast & Furious. The idea that ratings for baseball would increase because they showed "For Love of The Game" on another channel — well, actually maybe that would work, because coming across that movie might immediately change the channel to avoid it.

Seriously, though, what are we — ad wizards? I didn't take any marketing classes at DePaul (some one would say I never took any writing classes) but the guys over at Game-Ending Walk are right. The game itself is in OK shape, and the lower ratings obviously correlate with the girth of choices on TV. Baseball was a $6.something-billion business in '08 — only Bud Selig would call that a "crisis" that requires the Heads of the Five Families to meet in Milwaukee.

They've moved up the start times in the postseason. Great. So, while we're being reactionary, he could shorten the length of games. You know how you do that? By making the break between innings shorter. Make it mandatory throughout the league that breaks last no longer than a minute. Aren't commercial breaks, like, 2 1/2 minutes long in the World Series? They milk it on the Game of the Week broadcasts, too. Shorten the games, so Johnny's still awake in the sixth. Sure, there are fewer opportunities for commercials, but at least they would lose fewer people between innings!

'Duk: Your points about trimming the time down are salient and I agree that Selig can't just put this "the games are starting a half-hour earlier!" feather in his cap and call it macaroni or whatever. Still, I'd love to plunk my behind in that producer's chair because there are so many things that could be done to shock FOX's corpse of a broadcast back to life.

We've talked about this over and over again on BLS, but the first move HAS to be giving Buck and McCarver their walking papers ... And not entirely because Buck is a droning presence or because Timmy Mac riles up the blogosphere any time he gets behind a microphone, but because they add no excitement to the game whatsoever and they don't attract anyone who might not be interested in the game otherwise.

Look, back when network baseball was at its peak, you had guys like Jack Buck or Vin Scully calling the games in an artful and passionate way and personalities like Bob Uecker and Joe Garagiola giving the contest plenty of color. When did baseball get so arrogant to think it can keep trotting out two guys who sound like they don't really care about being there? Baseball needs someone selling the game in the era of increased entertainment options and these two guys simply aren't up to the task. 

DB: Am I the only guy who likes Joe Buck? Rather, am I the only guy who doesn't hate Joe Buck with every fiber of his being? Buck does sometimes sound like he'd rather be doing something else, but why be fake about a game that lacks in quality?

I'm not going to throw my support behind McCarver — I'm not that out of touch — but I just don't think there are any announcers out there who are actually going to draw people to the games. Nobody is more enthusiastic in the booth than, say, Josh Lewin, but people complain about him, too. It seems to me that people talking smack about Joe Buck and Tim McCarver is a good thing, because at least they are talking about how much they dislike them. Tuning into a game to hear McCarver's latest overly obvious analysis is kind of fun. "Did you hear what he said last night? What a knave!" Keep the announcers, even — shudder — Timmy.

What if Fox added a glowing baseball, so we could better keep track of the rascal?

'Duk: At this point, I wouldn't put a glowing baseball past Bud, but let me add one quick end note on Buck/McCarver. You seem to be merely indifferent to that duo, which is why think there's a good argument to be had in that they've simply had their shot at calling the World Series and that it's time to move on and bring fresh blood into the booth.

I mean, the NFL isn't afraid to try out different things with its broadcasters, so why does baseball maintain the flexibility of the Catholic church?  As for Joe Buck, I'll also say this: He's been doing the playoff baseball since 1996 and he hasn't come anywhere close to producing a memorable line during a big moment, despite being present for many of them. I mean, not even one "I don't believe what I just saw" or anything close. That's disappointing.

OK, let me ask you this question. What's the biggest improvement that a FOX producer could make to enhance David Brown's viewing experience?

DB: That's actually the question you've been asking all along, and I've been avoiding answering it. Or maybe by not answering it, I have. One thing that NBC used to do is, they had one game and maybe a backup in case of rain or whatever. These days, they seem to regionalize the broadcasts to the point that almost everyone in the country is watching a different game at the same time. How is that any different than a Tuesday night? Bring the nation together and give us one game at a time. Maybe start it at noon, central time and have a second game afterward. A good, old-fashioned doubleheader that everyone sees. Not six games, or whatever they usually do.

'Duk: Man, I really like that idea, mostly because I've long thought that baseball really needs to work hard to get out of its regional ways. I mean, it seems like people are really interested in their local nine and they show it through attendance counts, merchandise purchases and local TV ratings during the regular season.

But once their team is eliminated from contention? Well, those fans move onto their fantasy football team or the new fall TV lineup or whatever. By following your proposal, I think baseball puts more of an emphasis on it being a national event and pastime and can get people to tune into the World Series, even if one of the teams is MLB's equivalent to the Arizona Cardinals. That dynamic simply doesn't exist right now.

DB: That was a criticism of the world series last year I didn't understand, much less agree with — the Phillies and Rays were fascinating stories last year and should have been at least a pretty big draw come October. Poor ratings couldn't simply be just because of "small" TV markets. Is Philly "small"? And yet, people didn't watch.

I still say the overriding factor is the choices available. The best way for baseball to make its sport the top choice is to better market its stars and do a better job telling the team's stories during the season. That means putting fewer games on TV during the season and making the Game of the Week more of a special event. The genie might be out of the bottle on this, however. I still say bring back the glowing puckball! 

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