Blacking Out the Fans

Note: since the original post, ESPN has chosen to exempt the 2nd game between the Boston Red Sox and the Detroit Tigers on May 29 from the Sunday night exclusivity agreement. This means that the game will be covered on TV in these two markets. While this gesture is very much appreciated, it does not alter the fact that the exclusivity agreement should be modified to account for emergency game rescheduling.

Due to a blanket contract between ESPN and Major League Baseball, fans of the Boston Red Sox and Detroit Tigers would not be able to watch one of the most hotly anticipated pitching matchups of the year on TV: Josh Beckett vs. Justin Verlander, were it not for a last minute voluntary gesture by ESPN. You see, the contract stipulates that all other TV coverage of MLB games must exclude a 3 hour window on Sunday nights, when ESPN has its Sunday night baseball game.

The idea was to ensure that no games to be shown on TV would be scheduled during that 3 hour block except for the game that ESPN covers. The problem is that there is this little unpredictable element in baseball game scheduling called “weather”. Now to be clear, the rule is that no game can start within that window. A game that goes into extra innings or is in rain delay does not need to have coverage interrupted if it strays into that time-span.

The MLB schedule is so ludicrous with respect to non-divisional games (due to the fact that interleague plays take so many league games out of the schedule) and the schedule is so densely packed that when a non-divisional game is postponed due to rain, a crisis ensues. This is what happened Saturday night, May 28, when the Red Sox-Tigers game had to be called off.

The Tigers and Red Sox were faced with very bad choices. This was the one and only visit to Detroit for the Boston club (again, due to the silly schedule), and there is not enough slack in the schedule later in the season to allow them to fly in, play a makeup game, then get to their next scheduled game on time. So, they were forced to schedule the makeup game for Sunday evening, even though it falls in the ESPN Dead Zone. As a result, no TV coverage is allowed.

The truth is, the ESPN exclusivity agreement makes sense for initial scheduling purposes, but falls down when rescheduling due to weather is made necessary. Who would win if the Sunday night ban remained in effect? Would Red Sox and Tigers fans shrug their shoulders, say “oh, well,” and watch the scheduled ESPN game between the Cincinnati Reds and the Atlanta Braves? Not on your life. They would listen to their teams’ game on the radio and grumble. They would also bear considerable ill will toward ESPN, which could negatively impact Sunday Night Baseball ratings in Boston and Detroit for some time to come. ESPN’s ratings on the 29th in the greater Detroit and Boston metro areas will be near zero. ESPN would lose. The Red Sox and Tigers get no TV coverage, so the get no TV fees for the game. The Red Sox and Tigers would lose. And of course, the fans would lose. ESPN apparently recognized this, and granted an exemption.

Exclusive time period contract provisions should have emergency exception clauses to cover things like weather postponement and rescheduling. This won’t hurt ESPN, which gets no benefit from the situation, and could prevent the ill will that may hurt their ratings going forward. It would also cast MLB in a better light.

Commissioner Bud Selig should demonstrate to the fans that he takes seriously the charge of his office that says that he is empowered to act in the best interest of baseball and its fans. Selig should demand a change in the contract to allow for emergency rescheduling. The fans should press the issue through boycotts, emails, tweets, and blogs. Enough of this nonsense. Nobody is winning here.

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Filed under blog, Boston Red Sox, General Baseball, Major League Baseball, mlb, Red Sox, Tigers

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