What about the champs?
ESPN released its Sunday Night Baseball lineup for the first half of next season and the World Series champion Washington Nationals aren’t on it. At all.
Instead, baseball fans will watch a season opener on March 29 between…the Cubs and Brewers? We get it. ESPN is running a business here. Ratings matter. They should matter.
But Major League Baseball and its television partner are taking things a little far here chasing the golden goose. The Yankees are, of course, going to be on Sunday Night Baseball. You didn’t need to wait for the schedule to come out to know that. And, of course, they’re going to play the Red Sox. But ESPN is making that its main national game twice in five weeks (May 10, June 14).
This isn’t really about the Nationals because, honestly, you can’t argue that Washington will pull in the kind of ratings they will in Chicago, New York, Boston and…Milwaukee? Really?
Yes, those same Brewers who lost to the Nationals in the N.L. wild card game not only get to host the season opener against the Cubs at Miller Park (March 29), but they play an SNB game at the Mets on April 19 and host the Cardinals on May 3.
We know they love their sports in Wisconsin and that the Brewers have an underrated history, a nice ballpark and the 2018 N.L. MVP in Christian Yelich. It’s a fun team. But are they really such a ratings behemoth that you’d have them on three times in 36 days? Maybe this is more about who Milwaukee plays (Cardinals, Cubs, Mets) because other fun, talented small market teams didn’t get the same respect.
According to an Oct. 15 story on Forbes.com, Milwaukee’s regional ratings on FOX Sports Wisconsin were up 14%. The Nationals certainly can’t say that. Their local ratings on MASN dropped 10% from 2018.
That also explains why the Minnesota Twins, who won the A.L. Central, have the most homer-happy team in baseball and boasted a 65% local ratings increase on FOX Sports North, are on SNB…never. Zippy appearances. Just like the Nationals.
And so we’ve come to the heart of the problem. ESPN is in the business of making money. Major League Baseball is, too, but it at least has the added challenge of growing its own product. And this Sunday schedule isn’t doing that at all.
You don’t have to put the A’s and Rays on SNB just because those are two good teams. Let’s not get crazy. But exposing a broader group of teams and players is still important. ESPN doesn’t appear to care. MLB should.
The network paid $5.6 billion for its television package in 2014. It knows that Red Sox-Yankees early in the season will draw viewers from those markets and that the rivalry is enough to pull in added casual fans. The logos on those iconic hats are enough to stop anyone flipping past to pause in their tracks for at least a second. The Nationals and Twins aren’t doing that.
But there has to be a balance here. Yes, SNB should feature the Cubs. And it’s to be expected that in a year when the A.L. East plays the N.L. Central in interleague play, you are going to have both the Cubs-Yankees (June 28) and the Cubs-Red Sox (June 21) on your show. But if ESPN is allowed to simply chase those ratings with four Chicago appearances in three months, the sport itself loses out.
The Angels stink. But there is no way you can justify leaving a star like Mike Trout off SNB if the goal is to showcase your best players. The same goes for Bryce Harper in Philadelphia. The baseball audience that tuned in to watch the World Series was immediately enamored with Nationals outfielder Juan Soto, the leg-sweeping, crotch-grabbing, train tracks-hitting phenom who plays with such joy.
Maybe all three of those players, if their team is in contention, will see time on SNB the second half of the season. Those games from Jul 26 on will be announced two weeks in advance. It’s not good for the sport if they don’t.
The schedule plays a part in this. MLB announced it in August and ESPN makes its Sunday choices well before the playoffs conclude. That is a lame excuse, though. The network couldn’t wait until after the World Series to decide? Come on now.
Any true baseball fan this May will tune in back-to-back weeks to see the Astros thump trash cans from the dugout while Yankees and Red Sox pitchers plot which batters to drill. Maybe they’ll use Apple Watches to coordinate the beanings. If rules-bending Houston is allowed to field a team this year, you can see those games on May 17 and May 24. That is true and right. ESPN isn’t running a charity and big markets and big fanbases matter.
But it isn’t interested in balance, either. So you won’t see Soto and the Nationals. No chance at Stephen Strasburg or Max Scherzer or hilarious dugout bits. You definitely won’t see the Twins or Indians. Both drew huge local ratings last summer and that’s exactly where you’ll mostly catch 19 of MLB’s 30 teams for the first three-and-a-half months of the 2020 season. ESPN and MLB made sure of that.
MORE NATIONALS NEWS: