As noted in this space recently, Major League Baseball has missed a golden opportunity as American team sports reveal plans to return to the field this summer. With players and owners at stalemate around revenues and prorated salaries, MLB’s return is in serious doubt for 2020 at this point.
Whether there’s pro baseball played in the U.S. this year or not, though, MLB’s postseason is still proving to be a significant draw for broadcast television.
On Saturday, the New York Post reported that the league has signed a new TV deal with Turner Sports worth $1 billion. As is the case with Turner’s current deal with MLB, that will include regular season games as well. But the big draw comes from the postseason.
Over the last couple decades, regular season baseball has become a more regionally-focused affair. Nearly every team has a regional network that may or may not air live games exclusively. Additionally, with games nearly every day, younger fans have not necessarily embraced MLB and digital highlight-focused culture the same way they do with the NBA.
Understanding this, MLB has proposed a new expanded postseason for 2022 that could implement made-for-TV elements that harken to Turner’s broadcasts of college basketball’s Selection Sunday. The opportunity for more teams and fan bases involved, a fun selection show and more games to advertise against certainly all help fuel what’s reported to be a big increase for Turner’s annual TV rights payouts.
Last season, MLB playoff games (including the World Series) featured an estimated $474 million in TV ad spend, according to iSpot.tv. Turner-owned TBS accounted for less than 20% of that — it was spread across TBS, Fox, Fox Sports 1, MLB Network and ESPN — but a new deal would potentially help increase that share of revenues. Under the current postseason structure, 10 teams play in a maximum of 43 games. The proposed new postseason could mean as many as 59 games in a given year (and no fewer than 39). For Turner and the other broadcast partners, the opportunity to add that much live sports inventory is incredibly enticing.
All of this, of course, requires baseball returns to play sometime soon. While this year may be in doubt, there is a stipulation where MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred can force players back for a shortened season. There are repercussions for that sort of move too, though. With the current collective bargaining agreement up in 2021, a heavy-handed approach is likely to weigh on all proceedings next year. That could mean MLB is headed for a labor-related stoppage for the first time since 1994-95 (which included a cancelled 1994 World Series).
And if that happens, who knows what sort of environment baseball will return to. After the 1994-95 work stoppage, attendance and TV ratings were down until the 1998 home run chase between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa (it’s worth watching ESPN’s “Long Gone Summer” documentary about it — the program debuted on Sunday night). With a lot more distractions for fans now than there were then, who knows to what extent fans would return. The results could be disastrous for franchises both large and small, but also broadcast partners (like Turner here) banking on the playoff viewership boost.
That’s all still a long way out. But some food for thought as everyone watches MLB and the players at the negotiating table this summer.