Recent happenings with baseball’s Houston Astros provide a lot of opportunity for veteran baseball people to offer comment. Based on the 25+ years that I was involved with major league baseball from the announcing side of things I am no exception.
As in normal life there are some trends that are purported to be new and innovative, but really are nothing more than alterations of things that may have been tried before.
For instance every owner who thinks he can re-engergize his baseball audience and take some of the interest away from what is now King Football is wrong. Football has done a remarkable job of selling its product as the sport to follow. But it also has one major advantage. It is not played nearly every day. Baseball takes dedication to truly follow the sport. It is played every day. People have jobs and families. Most don’t have nearly enough time or inclination to watch or listen to every one of the 162 games played in major league baseball. It is easy to set aside time on 16 Sundays to follow the NFL. NFL games, thus, are events. Baseball games are just one of 162. Television ratings for baseball’s post season have declined as more rounds of post season games are added. That should be no surprise either. Sports are generally local. Once one’s local team is eliminated for the championship race millions of potential viewers are lost. Unless a team has been nationally sold like the Yankees and/or Red Sox were during their glory seasons the vast majority of American’s don’t know who plays on the teams. The don’t know who plays on the majority of NFL teams either, but the difference is the NFL games are events. The added baseball playoffs extract extra television revenue, but take great emphasis away from the biggest event–the World Series. In most markets the baseball season has been over for a month before the Series even begins.
One recent event illustrated that the actual game of baseball is fine. The Little League World Series out rated major league baseball in most markets when going head to head. Why? Because the games were part of a bigger event. There is no way a season of 162 Little League games would have any ratings, but when part of the event– The Little League World Series– with all the sub stories involved that got national attention, good ratings were assured.
The point is that baseball as a sport is fine. Games may last longer than they should. But so do football games. If you have ever attended an NFL game in person the players are standing around on the field more than running plays. The sport is made for television. Replays (or commercials) cover the extensive dead time. We don’t notice it as much on television.
But baseball can never top football as an event unless each football team starts playing three or four games per week which can never happen due to the physical toll playing the game takes. The colleges and NFL are trying to cover that angle by adding days of the week in which games are played. But those are generic games…not games by YOUR team. Some of the TV ratings for midweek college games are miniscule. Fans want to see THEIR team.
This gets me to the mess that continues to be the Houston Astros television situation. For nearly two seasons their games have been available on television to a small fraction of the audience the club needs to reach. Certainly being available in only 40% of Houston homes is one thing. But not being available to 100% of homes outside of Houston is even more serious. Baseball has always been a summer vacation sport for millions of fans. Games of favorite teams are included in vacation plans of fans all over the country. Folks from downstate Illinois and Indiana flock to Wrigley Field in the summer to see the Cubs. The same is true for millions of fans that drive to St. Louis, Cincinnati, Kansas City, Cleveland, Detroit and Pittsburgh. Those cities alone do not make up all the fan base. Sure, the Astros have been a team not easy to grasp the last few years. They have fielded a lot of unproven players. They have little atmosphere in Minute Maid Park with crowds that are sometimes almost embarrassingly small. But they are playing games and few can see them.
“Out of sight-Out of mind” is a phrase that applies to too many folks who would follow the Astros more if they could. Local radio and television–including the Astros own flagship radio station–doesnt’ help. Hosts make it sound like an intrusion to have to say anything about the local baseball team because football is king and baseball is dying. Maybe to the hosts it is, but I can assure you not to the fans who want to follow baseball, but are rebuffed at every turn. It is alive and well in other markets around the country. I know. I still get out and have heard hosts on WLW in Cincinnati dissect the Reds…or those in Chicago complain about the Cubs and White Sox. They still talk about the sport even though football season has started. Just not in Texas.
I do not deny baseball is at a low spot in Houston (and North Texas,too, for that matter) but a return to TV access and management dedicated to speeding up the rebuild process while making the right moves can change that.