Tuesday, July 04, 2006

World Baseball Conspiracy Theory

(This article was originally published by Sports Media Watch on March 17, 2006.)

So how do you prefer your conspiracy theories – light (David Stern freezing the Knicks’ lottery envelopes so they get Patrick Ewing) or dark (LBJ expediting JFK’s earthly exit)? I enjoy mine international and sporty – like the World Baseball Classic. Don’t get me wrong, the WBC is a huge deal. In 23 years this is going to be a major event in center media and across the world. But today, in this country, we are watching a fringe media event in center media clothing.

How do I know this? Let’s begin by looking at the staff. My mom is a teacher, and she knows that any facility is only as good as the staff, the custodians and secretaries. In a baseball game, that equals the umpires – they’re not going to be noticed until something goes horribly wrong and then they’re everywhere. Even before the WBC got started, umpiring was an issue, as the Washington Post put it: “While many of the best players are getting ready for the first World Baseball Classic, it appears the top umpires won’t be calling the tournament.”

This was made official when it was announced that the umpire crews would be mostly minor league officials. That still allowed for 11 of the 16 countries to be represented by umpires in the tournament, in the interest of fairness (although try telling that to Japan). Nonetheless, is it possible to have big time baseball without big time officials to call the games. Would the tag-off call during the US-Japan game – the call that decided the game – have been different had there been major league refs? Who knows, but if the umpiring had been treated as a major event and not something that could be pawned off to the second string we wouldn’t be asking that question. And I’m not the only one who noticed.

On top of that, there is far too much back-patting and congratulating going on for my taste. The people who are speaking and writing about the WBC are so on-message it’s like Karl Rove and the Republican National Committee decided to freelance for MLB.

Sure, Bud Selig is all aglow, which makes sense as this was his brain child. But he also tried to spin an All-Star game that ended in a tie as a good thing, so his opinion can’t be accepted as impartial (and come on, he’s Bud Selig). ESPN’s columnists have their marching orders too. Eric Neal is plugging it. So is Wayne Drehs. And Jayson Starks. Even the players are raving about it. “It’s the best baseball experience of my life,” crowed Chipper Jones. No event is as good as they make it out to be in its first go round. This has to be a conspiracy.

Particularly since one of MLB’s partners bailed before the games even began. FOX seemingly took one look at the games and decided it wanted no part of them, leaving the entire package to ESPN and her bastard red headed step children. ESPN and ESPN 2 will air 16 games live, but ESPN Deportes is airing all 39 games. Granted, the strength and popularity of the Latin teams among Spanish speaking audiences in the US validates ESPN’s decision to air all the games in Spanish. But showing only 16 games on the mainstays of ESPN indicates that the powers that be in Bristol clearly realize the fringe nature of this programming.

And speaking of programming, why did ESPN arrange the rampant sale of syndication rights? In addition to the ESPN family of channels, the World Baseball Classic will be broadcast on 52 (fifty-two!) independent televisions stations and local cable providers. Now we’re getting into some mighty strange fringe sports media terrain.

Even stranger, those stations are picking up the ESPN feed, they’re not providing their own announcers. And some stations like KPHO in Phoenix are airing the games live while ESPN is airing them on tape delay. ESPN is basically feeding content to their ma-and-pa competitors and letting them show it first. It’s like Wal-Mart selling limited edition toys – toys that were only going to sold at Wal-Mart – and agreeing to divert shipments as needed to local toy stores in the area before the local Wal-Mart puts them on shelves.

What gives? Bristol must have gotten a really good price, right?

Maybe, it’s hard to say. According to Rod Hall, the general manager of KQUP in Spokane, Washington, ESPN used the airing rights to barter. That’s right, in this era of credit cards, PayPal and on-line banking, ESPN resorted to a form of commerce whose hey day passed some 400-500 years ago. In return for the airing rights to the WBC, ESPN received half of the ad time during each game’s broadcast.

Was this a good deal for ESPN? I wouldn’t think so, as it greatly diminishes Bristol’s broadcast monopoly during the tournament. This is particularly relevant when you actually look at some of the stations and markets where ESPN sold syndication rights and their spots in the Nielsen list of media markets: KNWS/KLDT and KTRK in Houston (the 10th largest media market), KGO-DT and KBWB in San Francisco (6th), WPHL in Philadelphia (4th), WWOR in New York City (1st), not to mention Verizon Cable, which operates in Washington, DC (8th), Dallas-Fort Worth (7th), Boston (5th), and Los Angeles (2nd).

For those of you keeping track at home, that’s 8 of the 10 largest media markets in the country, accounting for almost a quarter of the people in America. And that’s not counting the other 45 stations and cable providers, many of which operate in sizeable cities like Phoenix (14th) and Denver (18th).

Before going any further, it’s important to remember the local stations that are getting these syndication rights and the people watching on them. I think this arrangement works out great for them, assuming the syndication deals are similar to KQUP’s in Spokane. So many sports that we follow passionately are, for all intents and purposes, at the whim of a national organization and media: the NFL, MLB, the NBA, etc. Even minor league baseball and hockey teams are frequently associated with pro teams that have those national ties. Putting more sports on local television stations empowers local sports fans and places them closer to the teams and sports they care so much about. This should be encouraged.

This arrangement is beneficial for fringe media in general, never mind just sports media. A lot of these stations are struggling or recovering UPN affiliates in fringe or smaller markets. KQUP is just such a station. According to Hall, there were only about 6 UPN shows that did well in their time slots, and with UPN’s upcoming change, the station decided to drop its association with the network early. It’s now gathering a stable of syndicated sports broadcasting rights and hoping to rebuild that way. In addition to the WBC – which Hall expects to do very well, although he has not yet seen official ratings – KQUP holds the rights to the Seattle Sonics and the Spokane Shock of Arena Football 2. The WBC helps stations like KQUP a lot by providing them reasonably priced but popular content. Anything that helps out local stations that way can't be all bad.

But we’re still left to wonder why ESPN and the World Baseball Classic are airing the games this way. Maybe there’s a legitimate financial interest in doing it this way. Maybe ESPN makes more money selling off the syndication rights than maintaining their monopoly. That’s possible. That probably means Bristol will do the same thing with Monday Night Football in the fall, right?

Of course not, that would be stupid. Breathtakingly dumb, actually. Which is why it also escapes logic that they would do it for the WBC.

There's a counter argument that goes ESPN was worried about losing money on these games and so they farmed out the broadcast rights in order to minimize their loss potential (although given the super ESPN 2 ratings, that probably isn't a concern anymore). However, that leads to the conclusion that ESPN was really worried about this tournament and wanted to hedge its bets.

And here’s the conspiracy, I think. The WBC has been a fringe media event wrapped in the trappings of center media because Bud Selig, ESPN and MLB didn’t know what they were getting themselves into. There was a good chance these games could have failed if some things had broken badly for them: the stars had stayed off the teams, fans didn’t show up, the match ups weren’t compelling, there were no interesting story lines, etc.

And if things had gone really badly, Bud and company would have needed a scapegoat. Enter fringe media.

By putting these games on as if they were a fringe event, there was an automatic shield from criticism that they were failures: “No major league umps? Who cares, we’ll get minor league umps. This is just the first World Baseball Classic. Look, we sold the rights to these games for a song to local stations, you can’t expect the tournament coverage to run smoothly yet. The folks up in Fargo didn't do the tournament right. Don’t worry, we’ll do better in 2009.”

At the same time, they wanted this to be a success, desperately. Hence ESPN broadcasting the games (although a network like FOX would have been nice), the on-message crowing from Selig, Bristol’s talking heads and the players. But if the tournament didn’t work out, that’s ok too – there was already someone to blame, the local stations carrying the games.

Fringe media and local television stations have a hard enough time competing with national media outlets without getting set up by national media outlets. I’m thrilled that the WBC has been so successful for the sport and the local stations carrying the games. I think that will continue even though the US has been eliminated. And I hope that in 2009 when MLB knows that this will be a popular center event, they’ll still sell the syndication rights to local stations. But I doubt it. They’ll have served their purpose by then.

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