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WSI News - WSI Spotlight

Extra Headaches over Extra Innings?

by
Guy Bacci

There has been no lack of discussion around the bombshell that the New York Times dropped on diehard baseball fans a few weeks ago: MLB is allegedly prepared to announce an exclusive deal to broadcast out-of-market games, the Extra Innings package, with DirecTV. While most baseball fans are probably tired of the topic, seeing as how the vast majority live in the home of their favorite teams, the disgruntled minority is up in arms.

By default, Iím a member of that disgruntled minority. But Iím not disgruntled because my ability to view White Sox games is going to be hampered. Five or six years ago, when I was a mid-20s adult who lived and died on baseball, I would have been disgusted and irate. As a slightly older, slightly more mature person, Iím simply disappointed that the game I love continues to be less and less accessible to so many people.

The DirecTV issue itself doesnít make me panic as much as its combination with the recent TV deal that baseball signed. The entire first round of playoffs is now in the hands of Turner Broadcasting. I can honestly say I have no idea what channel TBS is on my cable package. As a diehard fan, I will seek it out, but casual fans wonít bother.

Out of sight, out of mind.

Letís be clear: From a pure dollars and cents standpoint, MLB is undoubtedly making a sound business decision by signing these deals. But when you start considering long-term impact and the importance of exposing your product to as many people as possible, the debate becomes more complicated.

Many folks will argue the NFL has become stunningly popular despite having its Sunday Ticket package exclusive to DirecTV. But the comparison is seriously flawed. There are only 16 games per team in a season, and almost all on Sunday. You could find a friend or relative who has DirecTV and drive over every week. Thatís not feasible for baseball. In addition, damn near every local bar or pub in a metropolitan area has the package. If I really want to catch a Bears game, which I did often this past season, I jump out of bed and head down the street. I donít need to cut down trees or burn down the neighborís house to have a dish installed on my roof.

Thatís not even the most important point. The most important point is that the NFLís product is still on public TV, in primetime, every single week of the season. As a Bears fan, I saw nearly half of their games in the comfort of my living room without paying a dime.

Make no mistake, if the NFL continues to move games to its own network, the exploding popularity of the league will cool off. The NFL is the most accessible pro sport in the country. There are up to five games on free TV every Sunday, plus a national primetime game every Monday. And we wonder why the league is thriving?

Baseball is utterly inaccessible. Fox currently has ownership of one LCS, and last October, TBS announced it had obtained the other LCS. Are you kidding me? Can you imagine the Sox against the Yankees battling for the AL crown on freakiní TBS?

There was an eloquent argument on the WSI message board regarding Howard Stern switching to Sirius radio. Indeed, Stern hit the jackpot with that decision, and many suspected his millions of listeners would follow. They did not. An article from the LA Times last summer estimated Stern lost 10 million of his 12 million listeners. Ten million!

The relevancy of Howard Stern has evaporated. There was a time when Howard Stern was on the tip of everyoneís tongue. If he still had 12 million listeners, he would still be incredibly relevant. But now, you hardly hear anyone talking about him, unless itís about how many stock options Sirius continues to fork over.

If you had a chance to have a private chat with Howard Stern, Iím betting heíd give up a lot of that money to become relevant again. If the FCC hadnít censored Stern so many times, he would have never left public radio to begin with, no matter how much money Sirius threw at him. Nobody would want to lose 10 million listeners.

Granted, Iím personally thrilled to see Stern vanquished to the niche market of satellite radio. But Iím not thrilled to see professional sports, particularly baseball, headed in the same direction.

Maybe Iím being short-sighted. Maybe the future of entertainment, including live sporting events, is all about pay-per-view. And maybe these leagues are smart to start moving in that direction. But those of us who live in the now have to suffer.

And I do mean suffer. I am one of those who cannot have a dish attached to my house for a variety of reasons. In order to get a clear view of the southern sky, I would need to attach the dish in such a way that is against the bylaws of my homeowners association. This is more common than people realize. The debate is not as simple as, ďIf you want to watch the White Sox in Seattle, stop whining and switch to DirecTV.Ē Many apartment buildings and condos donít allow satellite dishes. To add insult to injury, Seattle is also one of the markets where Comcast does not provide WGN.

So I literally have no choice but to turn to MLBís Internet service, although Iím having a hard time being convinced that watching streaming baseball on a computer is going to be convenient. Nothing beats coming home to a game thatís recording on my DVR, allowing me to start watching mid-contest and catch up by the end. Huddling over my computer, watching a 15-inch monitor, just doesnít have the same appeal.

Itís been estimated that 400,000 to 500,000 fans of Extra Innings will be lost. That may not seem like a lot in the big picture, but heck, thatís the size of a mid-market baseball city. In the end, itís just a sober reminder that baseball is a businessóa big business. Community be damned.

Of course, the decision is not yet official, so those of us in the abandoned minority can still hold out hope that guilt will somehow overwhelm Bud Selig and cause him to pull the plug on this deal.

But I wonít be holding my breath. Iíll just count my lucky stars that I was able to see every game of that magical 2005 season.


Guy Bacci is from the north suburbs of Chicago, where he couldn't avoid growing up as a pampered and snotty Cubs fan. Luckily, he saw the light in 1985 and never looked back. He loved the hard-working, old-school tactics of Carlton Fisk, who would become his all-time favorite player. His most memorable moment was going to a Sox double-header with his grandfather, who insisted on staying all nine hours (including a long rain delay). Guy is a journalism grad from Northwestern, currently residing in Seattle, where he works as a computer programmer and freelance writer. He can be reached at guybacci@yahoo.com.

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