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Major League Baseball has an exposure problem

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Remember when baseball was easy to find?

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Boston Red Sox v Tampa Bay Rays, Game 6 Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

Not long ago, I finished reading “The Captain: A Memoir” by former MLB superstar David Wright. A solid read filled with tales of personal success, New York Mets collapses, and World Baseball Classic escapades. At one point, Wright mentions how—in addition to growing up just miles away from the Mets’ AAA affiliate—he was able to flip on the “TBS Superstation” and watch many Mets/Braves contests.

That statement really rattled around in my brain—the ability to simply access a baseball game with very little hassle. In an era when cable television was becoming ubiquitous in American homes, a young baseball fan was able to indulge in the spectacle of his favorite team almost at will.

I recall similar scenarios from my own childhood:

During my mid-90s pre-adolescent period where baseball really took hold in me, I spent most of the summer months at a grandparents’ lake cabin. Numerous times, I’d come up from the water for a snack and browse through the TV’s offerings, often landing on a WGN Chicago Cubs broadcast. Though I only had the faintest notion that Mark Grace and Ryne Sandberg were stars, such details mattered little. I simply wanted baseball, and it was available. I’d marvel at the look of Wrigley Field on a sunny afternoon and catch a few innings before heading back to the dock.

Chicago Cubs
The joys of a (televised) Wrigley afternoon

Later that decade, I—like Wright—watched a lot of TBS Braves games. Why? Because they were locked in perhaps the best baseball rivalry at that time—with the Mets—and, even more simply, they were just on. When the Twins were off or not televised, there was a decent chance I’d be at least peripherally watching Maddux, Glavine, Smoltz, or Chipper Jones ply their trades under Ted Turner’s empire.

Of course, this is all to say nothing of my ubiquitous Twins consumption. Sure, Midwest Sports Channel or Fox Sports North may have only covered 120-130 games back then, but such networks were reliable. No yearly carriage disputes that left baseball consumers angry and without, well, baseball. True story: on the first TV I ever purchased with my own funds, I wore out the “5” button on the remote because for a decade, 55 was MSC/FSN.

Right now, Major League Baseball couldn’t be further from “accessible” to modern media consumers:

Want to watch your favorite—likely in-market—squad? You’ll probably have to re-up with the cable provider you recently escaped from, what with the regional sports networks being pulled from most streaming services (you know, the TV watching experiences people actually enjoy).

A nationally-broadcast team? Ha. Besides an ESPN Sunday game of the week that features the Yankees, Red Sox, Cubs, and Cardinals 95% of the time, fans are out of luck on that front.

National League Championship Series - Atlanta Braves v St. Louis Cardinals - Game Four
Who would have thought baseball fans would pine for the days of Ted Turner?!

You know how everyone just watches highlights and “browses” now, right? Well, despite having the best app infrastructure of any major professional sport, MLB decided that eliminating social media marketing/resources was a good decision heading into 2021.

All of this, of course, with stadiums largely closed to fans in the midst of a pandemic.

Many believe that baseball is losing the “sports culture wars” to football, basketball, soccer, and perhaps even more activities because it isn’t appealing or “too boring” to today’s fans. With all my heart, I believe this not to be the case. Baseball has captured the interest of fans young and old for over a century and changed relatively little in that time frame. The biggest difference at this moment? It is harder than ever before to actually watch the product at hand.

Somewhere this summer, a 10-year old kid will come up from the lake and flip on NFL highlights instead of a ballgame. Later in the season, that same child will check in on LeBron’s Lakers or Curry’s Warriors before the pennant races. These things will be done simply because the NFL and NBA are on, while MLB is not.

Blank Sony TV set re season cliffhanger
Blank screen = apt metaphor for current baseball exposure situation
Photo by Arthur Schatz/The LIFE Images Collection via Getty Images/Getty Images