by Clark Groome
“Where’s the beef?”
“Romeo. Romeo. Wherefore art thou Romeo?”
“Oh where oh where has my little dog gone?”
Those questions all surged through my head as I tried, sometimes in vain, to follow the recently concluded Major League Baseball playoffs. With each passing year it has been harder and harder to find the games on television.
Change “beef,” “Romeo” and “my little dog” to MLB playoff games and you’ll understand why these non-baseball quotes seemed so appropriate.
MLB, it has been written, has fallen in popularity, giving way to the football’s popularity. That’s true, but only to a degree. There are still millions of people who love baseball. Its attendance is at an all-time high. The number of teams involved in the playoffs has created a larger-than-ever built-in fan base.
And the playoffs completed last week have been really exciting. All of the predicted favorites have been eliminated. Most of the games have been settled by one run. Some, including the National League pennant winner, have gone down to the last at bat. The second game in the San Francisco/Washington National League Division Series tied the playoff record of 18 innings and was the longest game in time elapsed in MLB history.
The wild-card Kansas City Royals snuck by the powerful Oakland A’s in the American League wild card game; swept the Los Angeles Angels at Anaheim, the MLB team with the best regular season record; and then narrowly defeated the favored Baltimore Orioles in four straight. Along the way the Royals became almost everybody’s favorite team. Cinderellas can do that.
This year’s playoff baseball was great. For many casual or even devoted fans, the games were so hard to find on television that many people gave up.
Here’s the problem: games were on TBS, on the MLB network, on ESPN, on Fox, or on FS1. So what do I do? Should I, a Comcast subscriber, try channel 32 or 34 or 35 or 9 or 826 or 850 or 857, or 805 or 738? Does my cable plan even include those channels? The only traditional broadcast outlet is Fox. It only carried a couple of games.
Turning to radio, at least locally, was no help. The games weren’t anywhere to be found. On one frustrating evening – I think it was the fourth game of the ALCS – I thought our local ESPN radio station would carry the game. But no. Instead we were treated to a 76ers preseason game. The Fanatic has contractual obligations I guess.
Baseball clearly is making a pile of money by selling its playoff rights to so many outlets. When there are four games on some days, more than one outlet is needed. Most days, however, only one or two games were played.
But with the viewership dropping from 54.9 million who watched the final game of the 1980 World Series – the estimate for this year’s Fall Classic is about 15 million, one-quarter of the number who saw the Phillies top the Kansas City Royals 34 years ago – baseball has contributed to its own popularity problems.
The nature of sports coverage and the rise in the NFL’s popularity certainly have played a part. But the lack of easily accessible TV (and radio) coverage of what used-to-and-still-could be a very appealing destination for sports fans has done as much as anything to diminish the sport’s role as our National Pastime.
The entire World Series, thankfully, will be on Fox, with all games at 8 p.m. Only game five on Sunday, Oct. 26 competes with the NFL.
Baseball no longer seems to matter to TV’s bigwigs. Dramatic series and sitcoms used to schedule reruns during the World Series. No longer. Opposite the games this year will be new episodes of some of TV’s strongest shows. So it’s a choice between “NCIS,” “Law and Order: SVU” or “Hawaii Five-O” and the Giants/Royals.
If MLB and its broadcast partners had done a better job promoting and making the early round games more easily accessible, then maybe the World Series would be the must-see event it still deserves to be.