If the online stories hadn’t yet registered, or a letter from your current TV provider had got lost in the post, the news ticker scrolling across the bottom of ESPN America’s screen will have ensured that you know what’s coming.
ESPN America will cease to broadcast at the end of this coming Wednesday (31 July).
The channel has been the only source of MLB TV coverage in the U.K. since the sad demise of the ‘Baseball on 5’ show at the end of the 2008 season.
It has moved about over the years, from the ill-fated ‘Setanta Sports’ bundle to the current ‘ESPN UK’ bundle, but it has been a welcome option to allow us to follow plenty of North American sports.
You could normally look to ESPN America to provide at least four or five live MLB games during the British evening over the course of the week, with several other games shown live in the early hours of the morning. Those games were often repeated ‘as live’ at a more sleep-friendly time during the day, alongside ESPN’s Baseball Tonight programme and other baseball-related features.
As the calendar moves from July to August, so ESPN America will disappear and MLB fans in the UK will be looking towards the ESPN-branded channel as part of the new BT Sport package.
The ESPN channel will be showing the F.A. Cup this coming season and some of the various football leagues from around the world that used to be shown on the main ESPN channel may stay here rather than move to one of the two BT Sport channels. In short, the ESPN channel will not be a strict U.S. sport focused affair and therefore it’s possible that the MLB coverage could reduce slightly to what we’re used to.
However the first three days of the ESPN schedule (Thursday to Saturday) provide reason for optimism that there will be a decent amount of MLB coverage. There are a couple of ‘as live’ games as well as a live game on Friday evening (Cubs v Dodgers at 21.00) and a game at midnight on Saturday/Sunday morning between the Reds and Cardinals. These will be shown despite the live X-Games coverage which always reduced the live MLB offerings on ESPN America for a short while every season.
We’ll have to wait and see how things develop as the BT Sports operation kicks into gear with the start of the football and rugby seasons, but there’s no immediate concern that the current MLB coverage on the channel will be significantly affected.
Of course, that’s still dependent on buying the new BT Sport package.
Virgin Media customers are the main casualties here as no deal has yet been reached between the two companies, meaning that any existing subscribers desperate to keep MLB on their screens in this way will have to change their provider. Sky Digital subscribers can add the bundle for £12 per month (plus a £15 activation fee), whilst there are various deals on the table from BT that can be explored on their website.
It is these deals that are driving BT’s expansion into broadcasting sport. The rights are just one part of the bigger battle with Sky and other TV and broadband providers to attract customers to their services. Amid it all, MLB coverage is a very minor detail – even though it’s very important to us – and that should always be borne in mind when looking at BT promotional materials and the potential absence of ‘MLB’ references. ESPN will be carrying MLB games for the rest of this season and beyond.
What does it all mean for MLB’s presence in the U.K?
It may be annoying to pay for MLB coverage as one small part of a bigger bundle, but that’s better than it not being available at all or even for it to be part of a less attractive package.
NHL fans will appreciate the latter point more than most. They have to subscribe to a minor channel called Premier Sports, only available via Sky and charging £10 a month for a limited, and to this sports fan, uninspiring portfolio of rights. What’s more, the Premier Sports deal greatly restricts what NHL fans in the U.K. can watch via the NHL GameCenter service, their equivalent of MLB.TV.
BT’s plan to challenge the dominance of Sky, particularly when it comes to live Premier League football, unsurprisingly is touted by the company as being good news for sports fans, but the reaction of many is to wish that there was a way to buy an online subscription to watch Premier League games alone rather than pay for two packages.
That’s not going to happen anytime in the near future because the sky-high rights deals the Premier League is able to obtain are driven by the likes of Sky and BT ‘investing’ in the rights so that they can sell other products to the subscribers. So long as there’s more money for the Premier League in this model than a direct selling method, that’s the way it will stay.
In North America, MLB.TV works as a service by providing fans with online access to games that they would otherwise not be able to watch (via national or regional networks, or attending the game in person). For places such as the U.K. where MLB coverage is very limited, MLB.TV becomes a god-send allowing access to any game you ever wish to watch. Although you need a decent broadband package to take full advantage of the service, it’s something that even more fans are likely to gravitate towards following the demise of ESPN America and I’ve no doubt that anyone taking that step will soon be left thinking ‘how did I live without this?’.
MLB offers a wonderful subscription service to us converts, but the real challenge is how to get the sport in front of the eyes and ears of potential new fans. Promotional ideas and potential MLB games played in Europe will help; however, MLB’s continued presence on British TV screens is still very important.
The ESPN UK channel never really convinced that it could be a long-term player in the market and the only question was whether ESPN America would once again become a stand alone channel upon its likely demise or if it would also cease to exist. Sadly for some in other European countries the Wednesday night shutdown leaves them at a loss.
At least for us there will be a continued TV service for some, if not all. BT’s significant infrastructure and bidding power gives them a much better chance of competing with Sky and even though MLB is only a small part of the overall package, the fact that it is a part of it should, on balance, be good news for the sport heading forwards.