2009 should be remembered with fondness by baseball fans. The MLB regular season was full of the usual intrigue, drama, great games and memorable moments and the Fall Classic lived up to expectations, producing the best World Series for a number of years.
Yet it was a sad and disappointing year for many in Britain as Five, the terrestrial home of MLB since 1997, abandoned the sport and created a big hole in the British baseball way of life. Meanwhile ESPN America, the subscription home of MLB, was embroiled in the demise of Setanta Sports.
Farewell ‘Baseball on Five’
It was almost exactly a year ago (21 Dec) that I published an article about the rumours of ‘Baseball on Five’ being cancelled. The news was a bad way to start the festive season and left many of us pondering what 2009 would bring. Hopes of a reprieve gradually diminished as the season opener drew near and we began to come to terms with the realization that Jonny and Josh wouldn’t be with us “fellow baseball nuts” for the Braves-Phillies game on 5 April. The cause was highlighted in petitions and even in the House of Commons, but Five’s decision was final.
Losing the ‘Baseball on Five’ show was depressing enough, but what made it even worse was that nothing took its place. There were rumours that Five might continue to show MLB games without any studio content, which would have at least kept baseball on terrestrial TV. That didn’t happen and in some ways it seemed like a good thing because it kept alive the possibility that someone else would pick up the rights during the season. Reports that the BBC might be interested always seemed a little too good to be true, but various Freeview digital channels (not least ITV4) appeared to offer a potential home for a unique show with a loyal fan base.
Sadly not. The regular season passed by with no free-to-air coverage available to Brits and, despite the desperate last-minute inspection of TV listings hoping otherwise, the exciting World Series was overlooked as well. The complete lack of free-to-air coverage meant that a whole year of potential new recruits, created by stumbling across the sport, were lost. Established fans unable to watch games via any other method may also have drifted away from the community that the ‘Baseball on Five’ show had lovingly fostered. The ‘out of sight, out of mind’ phenomenon can only further reduce the odds of a channel offering MLB a home in 2010.
Is there any hope for 2010?
I’d like to write ‘yes’, but that answer wouldn’t be backed up with any evidence that a free-to-air channel is going to bring baseball to us in 2010. While the initial shock of the financial collapse may have passed, we are still living in a time of financial uncertainty and spending money on broadcasting North American sports in the early hours of the morning doesn’t seem high on anyone’s wish list, even if investing in such a unique product could be to a broadcaster’s benefit in the long run. Five has brought back their studio-based NFL coverage on a reduced basis of one show a week rather than two. As the North American sport with the biggest fan base, that was always the most likely one to earn a reprieve so it doesn’t immediately suggest a broader change of mind on the part of Five towards baseball.
MLB International knows as well as anyone that the sport’s absence from free-to-air TV is a significant barrier to making it accessible to the British public. Reports have claimed that NFL virtually gave Five the rights this season to keep it on terrestrial TV and MLB would no doubt do the same if a partner could be found. Whether such a partner exists remains to be seen.
With MLB’s free-to-air coverage disappearing, the only option left for Brits wanting to watch games on TV was subscribing to ESPN America. Formerly known as NASN, ESPN America continued to show a good selection of live games alongside ‘as live’ repeats and plenty of baseball-related programming from the ESPN network. However, in line with the Five fiasco, tuning into the channel wasn’t exactly plain sailing throughout the year.
The impending demise of Setanta Sports created plenty of uncertainty around ESPN America during June. Of initial concern to subscribers was what would happen to the channel when the inevitable happened and Setanta went into administration. That concern was eased as ESPN America became temporarily free-to-view for digital subscribers while media companies surveyed the wreckage and formed plans on potentially acquiring the sports rights vacated by Setanta. From the outset, ESPN was seen as the frontrunner to pick up Setanta’s Premier League rights and to make their first real foray into the British sports market.
However, that prospect just created even more uncertainty. Would ESPN still want to make ESPN America available in the UK if they launched an ESPN channel? Would North American sports simply be shoehorned onto a handful of available spots in the schedule, further hacking away at the amount of baseball available to Brits? This nightmare scenario was being reported in the press and when it was announced in July that ESPN would be taking over ESPN America’s channel number of 417 on Sky Digital, the fears increased even further.
Thankfully, just days before the new ESPN channel was launched on 3 August, it was casually announced that ESPN America would continue to be available as part of an overall ESPN sports subscription package. The news was a big relief and has secured the future of MLB being shown on British TV for the foreseeable future. ESPN America’s exclusive five-year pan-European MLB rights contract finishes at the end of the 2010 season, but it is hoped that a mutually beneficial deal will be agreed to continue what has been a successful relationship since 2006.
Away from the MLB content, Eurosport2 once again backed baseball by providing a surprisingly significant amount of coverage of the Baseball World Cup during September. This included live coverage of a number of Great Britain’s second round games, several great games staged in the impressive Regensburg ballpark and the tense final games from Italy. The channel also showed the final of the European Cup Championship in June, when Danesi Caffe Nettuno defeated Fortitudo Bologna to retain the trophy.
The baseball coverage available to digital subscribers on ESPN America and Eurosport2 was varied and relatively plentiful, so those with the ability to go down that route had a good amount to enjoy. However, subscribing to these services is not an option for many people and, in any case, the availability of MLB coverage on a free-to-air platform is crucial if baseball is even to maintain its current level of popularity as a minority sport, never mind to reach out to new audiences. All us baseball fans can do is to continue to make ourselves heard (online and elsewhere if possible) so that people know there is an audience out there. Hopefully someone will listen in 2010.