Thursday, July 27, 2006

What MLB Can Learn From The NFL

by Scott Silversten

The next 45 days are a time for prayer.

You see, today is the first day of training camp for the New York Giants, who won’t take the field in a real game until Sunday, September 10. So for the next 6 ½ weeks, every morning before opening the newspaper, I say a small prayer in hopes that an injury has not stricken one of the team’s key players.

Eli’s elbows, Tiki’s knees, Lavar’s hamstrings and Jeremy’s groin (yes, I know how bad that one sounds) are constantly on my mind. Please, please, please let all members of Big Blue remain healthy until the Indianapolis Colts visit The Meadowlands to open the season.

Now, don’t panic. Like most of Baseball For Thought’s writers and readers, baseball is my biggest passion. Just like Annie Savoy said in Bull Durham, “… the only church that truly feeds the soul, day in, day out, is the Church of Baseball.”

However, something must fill those cold winter weekends and provide reason to exist until spring training arrives in February. And to be honest, the National Football League is as close to perfection as sports can get. Baseball is the better game, but let’s be honest, Major League Baseball could take several lessons from the NFL in how to run a professional league.

For example, in the NFL, the Pro Bowl remains a meaningless exhibition game; the playoff structure offers rewards for success during the regular season; good decision-making is the overriding factor in determining on-field success; and the league is willing to try new ideas to appeal to a younger and broader fan base.

While everything that NFL executives touch seems to turn instantly to gold, it also is quite obvious that a tarnish always remains on the decisions coming out of the MLB offices in New York. The latest example is the recent announcement of baseball’s new seven-year television deal.

Now granted, many of these decisions are based on money, and frankly, they should be. Money drives everything in our society, and in television, money is based on ratings. That is the biggest reason why, as part of the new deal, the World Series will start on a Tuesday instead of a Saturday beginning next year.

Essentially, that means instead of Games 1, 2, 6, and 7 being played on weekend evenings, only Games 4 and 5 will be played on Saturday/Sunday. Why? Simply because Saturday is the worst TV night of the week in terms of ratings. Never mind the fact that it’s often easier for fans to stay up for the late telecasts during the weekend.

“Our ratings research shows that this schedule should generate higher ratings,” said FOX Sports president Ed Goren.

Added MLB commissioner Bud Selig, “It’s so appropriate. That’s the way it used to be.”

What a typical baseball response, leaning on ancient history to support decisions. If legendary NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle made his choices that way, the Super Bowl would still be played mid-afternoon and televised on two networks at once.

Come to think of it, if baseball really wanted things “the way it used to be,” how about scheduling the World Series games for a little earlier start, say about 7:30 in the East.

Baseball has also made the mistake of giving all its Division Series games starting in 2007 to TBS, which will also utilize TNT when there is a conflict. There are no baseball fans who won’t be able to find the games (TBS is in essentially the same number of homes as ESPN), but I find myself at least wondering how much other programming TBS will dedicate to baseball.

The best part of Monday Night Football moving to ESPN this fall is that the sports network will turn each Monday during the season into a celebration of the NFL. For those who think a six-hour pre-game show prior to the Super Bowl is overkill, just wait until ESPN goes live from the Monday night site at approximately noon on game day.

Finally, whose decision was it for TBS to receive a “non-exclusive” Sunday afternoon package of 26 regular-season games. Any national package needs to be exclusive (currently, no game can be broadcasted locally on Sunday evening or Saturday between 1-4 p.m. that would conflict with ESPN and Fox, respectively).

A Sunday afternoon “non-exclusive” window seems like a waste, considering most fans are either out of the house or tuning in to the broadcasts of their local teams during those times.

What would have made more sense was to give TBS an exclusive Monday night package. Monday is the lightest day on the baseball schedule, meaning more fans throughout the country are likely looking for a game on many Monday evenings throughout the summer. TBS could then regionalize the games, much like FOX currently does on Saturday afternoon, while providing extensive highlights of the other games being played.

That would give MLB a national TV presence on Saturday, Sunday and Monday throughout the season.

An idea such as that would be along the lines of the NFL’s flexible schedule for the final seven weeks of its new Sunday night package on NBC (note: there will be no Sunday night game during Week 16, as it Christmas Eve). Understandably, the flexible schedule is a disservice to fans that hold tickets to a game scheduled for Sunday afternoon and then is moved to 8:15 on a cold night.

However, that is an inconvenience to 70,000 people. For the tens of millions watching across the country, ratings should soar for a huge late-season game that has been specifically bumped to primetime due to its importance. For those detractors, I note last season’s Sunday night game between the 2-8 New York Jets and 2-8 New Orleans Saints.

While it was long since passed the time for this flexible schedule idea to become a reality, the credit goes to the NFL for taking the chance on something that has flaws, but will likely be a benefit to the league’s fan base.

Here is to praying that the MLB hierarchy will one day learn from their NFL counterparts.

Scott Silversten's column, "Age of Reason", appears every Thursday


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