The news has still to be officially confirmed, but Five’s decision to discontinue coverage of all U.S. sports from the end of the current NFL season has sent shock waves through the hordes of North American sports fans in this country.
The omnipresent ‘credit crunch’ may hurt your ability to find the money for subscriptions to other services such as NASN or MLB.tv and technical issues could prevent you from going down that route even if you want to. Coupled with the immense importance for MLB to retain a free-to-air presence if the sport wants to encourage people to the sport, everyone who has an interest in baseball has an interest in trying to keep MLB on British TV.
If Five are not going to bring it back next season, what other options are there?
MLB’s TV future firstly needs to take into account NASN’s ‘exclusive’ deal to broadcast games and other related programming. This contract expires at the end of the 2010 season, so SKY are immediately out of the running for the next two years. In some respects, that in itself is not a problem as NASN already provides a subscription service for people who want to (and can) go down that route.
Five’s brilliant coverage of MLB over the last eleven years has enabled many an inquisitive Brit (including this one) to take a look at the sport without finding additional funds to do so. Without this opportunity, many potential baseball fans will be lost. The entertainment industry is as competitive today as it has ever been and if you don’t put your product in front of people, someone else will.
The British market is not about to make or break the financial fortunes of MLB, but it is incumbent on the sport to widen its potential customer base as much as possible, particularly in times when disposal income is at a premium. MLB have done a better job than most in exploiting the wealth of opportunities the Internet has created to generate revenue from outside the traditional base of American fans. The MLB.tv subscription packages have proved to be very popular amongst international fans, while services such as the MLB Shop allow them to sell related products around the world.
Their ability to sell these products depends on people being interested in the sport in the first place. That’s why it is in MLB’s interests to see baseball maintain a free-to-air presence in countries like Britain. Hopefully they will be committed to helping the cause.
The efforts from the baseball fraternity have to be matched by the willingness of a broadcaster to back the sport. Of all the North American sports, the NFL has the best chance of finding a new home as it already has links with the BBC and the attraction of the games played at Wembley can be used as a strong selling point to a potential broadcaster.
MLB’s strength is that it provides something different to the standard sporting fayre; a unique experience that can be sold as such. A potential channel already has a highly-skilled team waiting in the wings with considerable experience in bringing the game to life for a British audience, alongside a loyal fanbase who will follow them wherever they go.
Now would also be a great time to jump on board because there is an event prior to the 2009 regular season perfectly designed to appeal to newcomers. Showing a few games (or even just some highlights) from the World Baseball Classic held next March would be an excellent way to introduce the sport on a new channel, with the passion and excitement of international competition played by the best in the world helping to debunk the myth that baseball is just a game played by Americans.
Are there any channels out there that might make for a good home? Much as I would love to see MLB on BBC One or Two every week, that’s clearly not going to happen. Both ITV and Channel Four might have some interest (ITV have covered NFL in the recent past, for example) and the crucial factor would then be quite what sort of coverage they would be willing to back (full live games throughout the season? A magazine-style show? etc)? There is still the possibility that Five might continue showing games without any studio involvement, which would do very little to attract new people to the sport or to encourage current fans to continue tuning in. It would be better than nothing, but that’s about it.
Terrestrial TV by its nature doesn’t offer a great deal of potential new homes, but the growing digital network could come to the rescue. NASN’s ‘exclusive’ deal does not appear to prevent MLB programming on Freeview channels. Switching to a digital-only channel would not be without its problems. There may be a cost for some viewers (a new digital receiver or TV) and there are still parts of the British Isles that cannot receive the signal. However, it would still give MLB a free-to-air platform to showcase the sport.
Looking through the channels, the best fit would be ITV4. This channel already devotes a considerable part of its schedule to sports, from live coverage of the British Touring Car Championship to Guinness Premiership Rugby highlights, darts, poker and much more. The early hours of the morning are currently given over to ‘Teleshopping’ so there is a potential space to fill without taking over anyone else’s patch. The channel does close at 06.00 in the morning, which regular Five viewers will know could be a problem for a few games. However, ITV4 do not share their channel with another, as quite a lot of the Freeview channels do, so the odd overrun might not be a problem.
Would ITV4 be interested in broadcasting MLB? That’s not for me to answer, but perhaps it would be worth the while of baseball fan’s to make themselves known to the channel and to show that there is a demand for the sport? If done in a courteous and respectful way, it certainly cannot hurt.
There are many compelling reasons to keep MLB on free-to-air TV in Britain and undoubtedly some potential opportunities to make this happen. Maybe Five could even reverse their decision? All British baseball fans can only hope that the new year brings positive news.