What ESPN’s layoffs can tell us about the future of watching baseball

Big League Stew

If you’re a baseball fan born in the era of cable but before Twitter, then “Baseball Tonight” no doubt had some role in the game’s courtship with your heart. Watching “Baseball Tonight” was like watching the news — a nightly habit formed from a thirst of wanting to be informed.

Those were different times, though. Before Twitter would show you every angle of Chris Coghlan jumping over Yadier Molina within minutes of it happening (and meme-adapted versions of the play right after that). It was before mobile apps and team-specific push alerts. Before live streaming. Before you could watch any game you wanted, not just the ones in your local market or on TBS or WGN. This was before social media gave bloggers and superfans just about as much credibility with fans as experts sitting in a TV studio.

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In today’s world, ESPN has decided that “Baseball Tonight” just isn’t as essential as it used to be. And so on Thursday, it made official what was probably inevitable: “Baseball Tonight” as we know it is dead.

The “Baseball Tonight” brand will live on, as a show tailored to Sunday Night Baseball and bigger annual events, but the nightly show that helped make so many people baseball fans, that’s gone.

Consider it collateral damage in the massive layoffs that ESPN went through this week. The network cut more than 100 reporters and on-air personalities, a move made necessary because of cord-cutters and ESPN investing so heavily in broadcast rights in recent years. Now that parent company Disney is ordering ESPN to cut costs, that’s backed them into a corner of having to choose live sports over studio shows.

Baseball was one of the sports hardest hit by ESPN’s layoffs. Among the cuts: well-respected reporters Jayson Stark and Jim Caple, front-office insider Jim Bowden, ESPN.com beat writers Doug Padilla and Mark Saxon and on-air analysts Doug Glanville, Raul Ibanez and Dallas Braden.

ESPN's
ESPN's

ESPN also announced a partnership with MLB Network on Thursday that will bring “Intentional Talk” to ESPN five days per week year-round. This means ESPN has essentially outsourced its “Baseball Tonight” replacement. MLB Network’s Chris Rose and Kevin Millar will continue to host the show, which will air 4-5 p.m. ET on ESPN2 starting May 1 and then its regular 5 p.m. ET timeslot on MLB Network. Expect to see more ESPN/MLB Network crossover now that the show will appear on both networks. “Intentional Talk” is MLB Network’s most ESPN-like show. It’s offbeat, personality-driven and something akin to ESPN’s “SportsNation.”

While “Baseball Tonight” will be gone on a nightly basis, ESPN is still hoisting it up as a premium brand. The emphasis will be on making “Baseball Tonight” an appetizer for Sunday Night Baseball, which remains the flagship national baseball broadcast of the week on any network. “Baseball Tonight” will also be seen before events such as the Home Run Derby, All-Star game and ESPN’s postseason broadcasts.

You can expect to see recent hires David Ross and Mark Teixeira involved in that coverage. Among the other personalities that will still appear: Rick Sutcliffe, Aaron Boone, Jessica Mendoza, Karl Ravech,  Adnan Virk, Jon Sciambi, Dan Shulman, Tim Kurkjian, Buster Olney and Keith Law.

In their announcement of the changes, ESPN’s Stephanie Druley and Burke Magnus wrote: “While there will be fewer overall Baseball Tonight episodes, the series will be more impactful. The dedicated team of behind-the-scenes employees who have made tremendous contributions to Baseball Tonight will continue to do so and/or contribute to other content areas.”

ESPN also broadcasts Monday Night Baseball and Wednesday Night Baseball, which don’t have the same cachet as Sunday Night Baseball and thus, they won’t get a “Baseball Tonight” lead-in. They will, however, get what ESPN is calling a “wrap” of studio coverage that will include cutbacks to important highlights and news updates before, during and after games. What exactly that looks like is still being finalized by ESPN.

So what does all this tell us in the big picture? Not only about ESPN’s larger plan, but where the idea of “watching” baseball is headed? Well, the days of highlights on TV are just about over. You’d know that if you’ve seen the way ESPN has tinkered with “SportsCenter” over the years.

Now, getting rid of the nightly “Baseball Tonight” is essentially getting rid of the baseball highlight. It’s ESPN throwing up its hands and saying “social media, Internet — that’s your job now.”

As such, ESPN is boasting that it will push more baseball coverage into social media: “We also plan to further integrate baseball content into our broadest ESPN-branded social media offerings on Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram, Twitter and beyond, while moving away from the less impactful baseball-specific (e.g. Baseball Tonight) accounts.”

Some baseball fans won’t have any problem with that, but the less social media-savvy might. The TV highlight looks destined for the same fate as the game story did years ago. Technology has made it a relic, as consumers are able to choose what they want when they want it, not when ESPN wants to show it to them.

This makes clear that broadcasting games is ESPN’s main objective and most valuable baseball commodity — either by selection of its brain trust or because it’s invested so much money to do so and now has no choice.

Yet we live in a time where fans have increasing options for streaming games. That includes the popular MLB.tv subscription package for out-of-market games, Twitter’s once-a-week streaming schedule or the daily MLB Free Game of the Day here on Yahoo Sports.

Kevin Millar of
Kevin Millar of

The upshot: Broadcasting rights will be the core product and networks will hold those tightly. As long as the networks — be it ESPN or your favorite team’s regional sports network — are investing millions of dollars into broadcasting rights, that will always be what steers business decisions.

While modern fans want the freedom to watch their favorite teams however they want, it’s going to take a bigger shift than this in the broadcasting world to allow that to happen. Some regional networks are starting to allow consumers to stream in-market games, but they’re still controlling how that works. As they should if the networks are willing to pay more than $1 billion to broadcast games, like Fox Sports Arizona did with the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2015.

Finally, the news about “Intentional Talk” speaks volumes about the control that Major League Baseball — as a dissemination business —continues to have over its product. Other sports have their own networks. It’s commonplace now. But MLB Network has taken a show that it produces and put it on cable TV’s most popular destination for sports. That shouldn’t be overlooked here. It’s content-marketing for a sports league.

That’s a decidedly new-school approach, certainly more entertainment than journalism. And new-school is the direction ESPN is going with its changes.

The Internet can have its highlights and “Intentional Talk” can help fill the gaps on the broadcast schedule. But ESPN will hold those broadcasting rights dear and do everything in its power to steer viewers to live games, because they’re the only thing that still matters in this battle against cord-cutting.

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Mike Oz is the editor of Big League Stew on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at mikeozstew@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!

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