The NBA and NHL are playing games all day with fans home by the TV. Why isn't MLB?

Hannah Keyser
·7 min read

As baseball games get longer, their late start times have been a source of simmering frustration for a certain segment of fans — especially those who are rightfully concerned about the sport’s declining popularity among younger generations. Postseason games that start at 8 p.m. on a school night seem almost designed to alienate future fans. And that was all before the pandemic hit.

Now, many people are stuck at home all day, eager for virtual entertainment. There’s little commuting to be done and no ability to attend games in person. Major League Baseball botched the opportunity to be the only major American sport on the televisions of a captive audience for most of this summer — a failed coup that was supposed to help the game regain some ground in the national popularity contest. And when the season finally started last week, most first pitches were still in the 7 o’clock hour.

Unlike the NBA and NHL, which are staggering games throughout the day as they resume play this week, baseball is largely sticking to a traditional start time schedule despite the unprecedented lack of structure in the rest of our lives right now.

A completely informal poll suggests that fans would embrace pushing up first pitch and, as a person who watches a lot of baseball, I would love a league-wide schedule that allows me to watch live baseball action from mid-afternoon until I go to sleep. (I never mastered the multi-game simul-watch and you’re welcome to draw conclusions about my social life from that previous sentence, but I stand by it.)

Still, I’m skeptical of the knee-jerk assumption that the multi-billion dollar industry that is baseball is run by idiots who never considered innovation that might make them even more money. So why didn’t MLB move up some of the start times to create a staggered schedule like the NBA and the NHL?

“I think the answer is, no one is willing to experiment right now,” said Patrick Crakes, a former Fox Sports programming executive who is now a media consultant.

“The obvious answer to every reason in professional sports and amateur sports is money,” said Dennis Deninger, a former ESPN production executive who is now a professor of sports communication at Syracuse University.

Ultimately, it’s a little bit tricky to prove why — amid establishing health and safety protocols for hundreds of people and negotiating a salary structure for the coronavirus-shortened season — baseball teams didn’t also look to shake up their television product. The radical rescheduling in basketball and hockey is largely the result of circumstance. Condensed schedules and limited facilities within the bubbles that those sports erected to protect their players forced teams to coordinate their start times around one another.

About 1,500 cardboard cutouts of fans are in seats as the Atlanta Braves defeat the Tampa Bay Rays 7-4 in a baseball game, the Braves' home-opener, Wednesday, July 29, 2020, in Atlanta. (Curtis Compton/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP)
Even with fans limited to TV viewing during the coronavirus pandemic, most MLB games are sticking with the usual 7 p.m. local start times. (Curtis Compton/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP)

Baseball, playing in home stadiums and inherently more regional, had no such necessity. And no centralized governance of start times.

In baseball, the commissioner’s office doesn’t have unilateral scheduling power. Or really, much scheduling power at all.

Provided that they’re in compliance with the Collective Bargaining Agreement (which includes a series of stipulations to protect players from having too tight a turnaround), teams set start times in conjunction with the regional sports networks that broadcast their games for local fans.

“Baseball is a little different than the NBA or the NHL in that its regular season economics are highly regionalized,” Crakes said. “And so RSNs and the teams are trying to figure out the best way to maximize that value and keeping the start times where they’re going to be next year seems to probably be the decision.”

Basically, there’s no overarching organizing force motivating MLB to create an all-day baseball schedule. Each team is only looking out for what’s best for its fans and its RSN. People who purchase the out-of-market packages like MLB.TV are an “extremely loud but extreme minority of people,” according to Crakes.

“Because all the economics don't flow from direct-to-consumer, and they're not going to,” Crakes said, “they flow from the RSNs.”

Some teams, like the Boston Red Sox, did consider and discuss with both the league and their local broadcast partner how televised baseball could best fit into the chaos of a country living through the coronavirus. NESN, which broadcasts both the Red Sox and the NHL’s Bruins, collaborated with each league, and will accommodate hockey’s staggered playoff schedule but specifically decided to continue to air baseball games at the 7:30 p.m. start time. In some cases, like the Washington Nationals’ implementation of a series of 6 p.m. start times, small adjustments were made. But for the most part, teams stayed loyal to an evening first pitch — because prime time still reigns supreme, and force of habit is as strong as ever.

While TV audiences are up across the board during the quasi-quarantine of 2020, prime time is called prime time for a reason — the most television eyeballs are still in the after-dinner hours. In fact, Crakes explains, the young adult male demo has been watching television later and later in recent years.

“And from a marketing perspective, we’ve got decades of these games on at 7 p.m.,” Crakes said.

But that doesn’t explain why teams aren’t taking this already anomalous season as an opportunity to attract new, younger viewers. Daytime baseball all week could become appointment viewing for kids stuck at home and casting about for entertainment.

“The problem that sports have is that the current owners own the teams now, and the current owners are the ones who vote on these decisions. If the current owners were more concerned about ‘How many fans will I be drawing 10 years from now?’ than they are about ‘How many dollars can I deposit this year?’ then you might see a difference in the schedule,” Deninger, the former ESPN executive, said. “It's banking on the present, and not looking to the future.”

He cited a recent round of broadcast renewals at astronomical numbers for proof that, financially speaking, the league will be just fine over the next decade.

“However, at some point, 10 years from now, if their average television viewer is 65 years old, believe me, nobody is going to renew at these prices,” Deninger said. “Because 65-year-olds have figured out pretty much everything that they ever want to buy in the world and you cannot convince them to try this new light beer or try this new hard lemonade.”

If baseball’s core demographic gets too old to appeal to advertisers, then the league’s decision-makers might start to feel the financial repercussions of failing to grow the game when they had the chance.

Ultimately, the short season means every game is worth more — literally. Teams are desperate to give their broadcast partners what the RSNs are paying for. And that’s as many in-market eyeballs over 60 games as possible. Staggering games throughout the day either to benefit baseball omnivores who buy the MLB.TV package or to potentially bring in new fans just doesn’t pay the bills.

“So if the games were routinely seen at those hours, and they've got a precious number of them,” Deninger said, “they probably don't want to go experimenting with, ‘Hey let's try some earlier games, because that might pay off for us down the road.’”

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