Major League Baseball Needs a New TV Deal to Remain Relevant

One of my enduring memories of coming of age in the late ’80s and ’90s was rushing home after school or summer activities to tune into WGN-TV and be transported to the friendly confines of Wrigley Field to catch the Chicago Cubs in action.

Thanks to cable television, baseball fans could always count on WGN to see the Cubs. A channel away on Cox, TBS had the Atlanta Braves. On many spring and summer days, baseball fans could count on a double-header nearly every day, with the Cubs in the afternoon and the Braves at 7:05 p.m. It was bliss.

Although the Cubs had a few seasons of success in those days, they were still affectionately known as loveable losers. Bobby Cox hadn’t quite turned the Braves into the machine they became in the middle and late ’90s, when they won their division 10 years in a row. I didn’t matter that the “home” teams weren’t consistently at the top of the rankings.

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The game — especially with Harry Carey calling Cubs games and hanging out of the press box to sing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” — was entertaining enough so that fans may not have been concerned about the outcome. A good time was going to be had.

On Saturday mornings, “This Week In Baseball” caught fans up on the action across the Major Leagues before a midday game aired on national television. This allowed fans to not only see teams at the top of the standings, but, since the Cubs and Braves are National League teams, the American League, including the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox could be seen.

If a game wasn’t on, ESPN aired reruns of home-run derbies from the 1960s, which helped young fans connect to the history of the game and allowed older fans a sense of nostalgia watching yesterday’s heroes.

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These memories came back in a rush on a recent Saturday. After mowing the yard, I wanted to relax midday by taking in a ball game. Unfortunately, there wasn’t one to be found. European soccer, check. Spring league semipro football, check. Not quite top-flight auto racing, check. Golf, check. Baseball, no.

Baseball used to be touted as the “national pastime.” I don’t know that anyone could legitimately make that claim today.

Sure, diehard baseball fans will recommend subscribing to MLB.TV or going to a local establishment that screens games if one wants to see a game, but that’s not helping to grow the game or make it interesting to future generations.

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This year marks the 30th anniversary of the notorious 1994 Major League Baseball strike, and in many ways, pro baseball has not been the same since. The game seemed to rebound in the late ’90s, specifically, in the summer of 1998 when Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa captured the nation’s attention as they took aim at Roger Maris’ single season home run record. Both topped the record of 61 home runs, with Sosa hitting 66 home runs and McGwire setting a new record of 70. Barry Bonds surpassed McGwire three seasons later in 2001 with 73 homers.

Baseball executives were happy to see interest in the game rise while records fell, but they weren’t too interested in how it was happening. In those days, baseball didn’t test players for performance enhancing drugs. Players adopted an attitude that “It’s not cheating if you don’t get caught.” Many players soon packed on muscle and looked more like professional wrestlers than traditional ball players. Baseball purists and traditionalists balked at the outcome. Records that had stood for decades were falling or in danger of falling seemingly annually.

Soon, players suspected of using performance enhancers — even those who saved the game in the summer of ’98 — became persona non grata. Since then, players of that era are viewed with suspicion. The biggest names of the ’90s and early 2000s were and still are marginalized.

While there have been amazing players in the last two decades, the game lost its luster. In a 2021 Washington Post poll, 34% of American adults said football is their favorite sport to watch. Baseball and basketball tied for second with 11%. For those under 30, 24% preferred football, 17% like basketball, 10% prefer soccer, and just 7% listed baseball as their favorite. If more anecdotal evidence is needed, last year’s World Series had the lowest television viewership on record.

Professional baseball suffered a self-inflicted wound three decades ago that is still impacting the game today. If the game is going to endure and continue to capture the imagination of Americans, Major League Baseball needs to do a better job of getting itself in front of current and potential fans. Streaming is great, but baseball needs more entry points for people to discover today’s games and the players who make the magic happen. A new TV deal with broader access to the game is desperately needed to revive interest and remain relevant in today’s sports/media landscape.

Chris Price is an award-winning journalist and public relations principal. When he’s not writing, he’s avid about music, the outdoors, and Saints, Ole Miss and Chelsea football.


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