ESPN went with Alex Rodriguez, the splashiest name in the talent pool, to generate more buzz surrounding Sunday Night Baseball, a venerable property in a competitive neighborhood. Now alongside Matt Vasgersian and Jessica Mendoza, Rodriguez has shown great promise and continued to rehab his image.
He is a star, presumably on the Michael Strahan path to crossover success. He has not, however, translated to significant ratings improvement for ESPN.
Let’s be perfectly clear here. Sunday Night Baseball is still a fine, watchable broadcast. But it’s difficult, in my mind, to magically transform a regional sport into must-see television one night a week. Asking neutral viewers from the 28 fanbases not involved in the primetime matchup to tune in is a challenge. Especially when the stakes — for most of the year — are not high. Each game is only one of 162.
There is always more baseball tomorrow. It’s a marathon, not a sprint.
And I say this as someone who loves baseball and will occasionally carve out time to watch a particularly compelling matchup. For SNB — or any other national baseball broadcast — to improve its numbers and become more of a draw, something has to change.
With that in mind, I’d like to propose a few tweaks. The biggest obstacle to overcome is making everyone who watches feel personally invested. If their team is not playing, why should they choose baseball over the spate of other appealing options on Sunday night, or available at any time on a streaming service?
The answer can be found in the past. In a nostalgia play. What if instead of delivering a straightforward broadcast focused on the singular game in front of them, the booth turned the show into something akin to This Week in Baseball? Treat the three-plus hours as a weekly look around the league, with video packages (features, highlights, top defensive plays, and bloopers). Use it as a de facto study session to catch everyone up on what’s been going on, and make it accessible to the casual fan.
The on-field action, of course, would be addressed. It would just be done more conversationally. I’d envision the pre-recorded packages wouldn’t exceed 15 minutes. If a major play happened while those were running, it’d be shown as soon as possible. It’d require a nimble touch, but it’s possible.
There would be space for interviews or more free-ranging, big-picture discussion, less for diligent play-by-play. It would be different, but still a celebration of the game. Information and entertainment.
Look no further than what the MLB Network does with MLB Tonight. The studio crew is able to juggle a dozen games, live look-ins, tutorials, and commentary. FS1 does something similar with MLB Whiparound. Both of those have built off a blueprint originally done by Baseball Tonight, which has dropped off ESPN’s priority list.
What if they could revive some of the things that made Baseball Tonight a nightly event and re-purpose it into a live broadcast? What if they could use the stable of talent and personalities in new and interesting ways? Do a half inning with the guys from Pardon the Interruption debating, casually, a hot topic in the lower corner. Try new things and tinker.
Admittedly, this is pie-in-the-sky stuff. Rodriguez and Vasgersian were presumably brought in because they are important and skilled at what they do. But both also have some history doing the type of show I’m proposing — Vasgersian at MLB Network and A-Rod at Fox. There’s no doubt in my mind they could adapt. The same for Mendoza.
Baseball is at a crossroads. Regional coverage is not. It relies on fan passion to carry the load and it is a safe play. National telecasts, however, are different. I believe they are at a crossroads and the status quo has a firm ceiling.
Something different could work. Again, it’s not as if Sunday Night Baseball is broken in any way. It just might benefit from a few edits and experiments.