I got into a spirited debate with a friend on social media this week who lamented how his desire to watch baseball has been diminished by his frustration with the lack of availability of games in a central location, ideally for free. We both grew up with near-daily availability of our favorite New York teams on free, over-the-air TV and it served as a comfort and a nightlight to both of us for six months a year. It arguably made me the rabid fan I am today, and he says he was as a youth.
Well, New York, and I’m told Chicago, were aberrations. Ask a Los Angeles baby boomer and they’ll relate that the Dodgers never showed any games on TV save for the road games against the San Francisco Giants during the early 1960s, and only a limited package of road games for much of the next two decades. Vin Scully on the radio became an institution as much by default as desire. New Yorkers have been spoiled relative to the rest of the country. For most, the game being on has never been a given.
As John Sterling so eloquently says, “that’s baseball, Suzyn”. Imagine if my friend liked the WNBA.
Yeh, I admit it, I like women’s basketball, too. Basketball purists will contend the women’s game has more nuance and less reliance on outside shooting than the men’s pro game does these days. And I’d be lying if I said I didn’t think some of the women are gorgeous. (I’m well aware of Elena’s preferences. I only said I admire her beauty).
But the WNBA, more than even MLB, the NHL or even the NFL, has spread its media rights among more different networks and platforms than any other professional league. Depending upon your market and the time of year, regular season games can and have aired on ESPN, ESPN2, ESPN3, CBS, CBSSN, NBATV, various RSNs, several local TV stations, Amazon Prime Video, Facebook Watch, Twitter and Twitch. Yes, even Twitch.
Now it just so happens for a myriad of reasons and personal choices I happen to receive virtually all of those outlets, as well as its League Pass. And it’s not typically my first choice, though I do watch from time to time. No doubt I’m not the league’s target demo, or even gender.
But the WNBA is hardly alone in spreading the wealth. The business reasons are unquestionable. Live sports, particularly professional, is far and away the most impactful content any media outlet can have, in terms of passionate viewership and potential subscribers. Both the WNBA and social media outlets skew significantly younger, female and progressive. If Twitch or Twitter want to throw money, or even platform reach, in your face with the chance of attracting new fans to your struggling league, would you turn them down? None of these outlets has the budget, resources, desire or reach to be a one-stop show. In aggregate, the WNBA gets the most bang for its buck they can, and helps to the reality that even some of the most successful teams, like the L.A. Sparks, draw COVID-like crowds to their arenas.
MLB’s challenges are similar, though it can be argued that in they may lose more from the frustrations of my long-time friend than they gain by chasing new viewers with new voices and bells and whistles, such as the AppleTV+ Friday Night Baseball package I’ve previously discussed. Exclusive (well, at least the beginning innings) games are also on Peacock, and their more traditional approach to coverage and talent has earned far more praise. The Yankees now air their local Friday night games on Amazon Prime in the New York market, which happens to be my friend’s preferred team, and has provoked the ire of fans like him who used to see that package on WPIX-TV, which has aired live baseball from some team nonstop since 1949.
And thanks to my team of preference, the New York Mets, they still do. A package of primarily weekend games airs on Channel 11, and its stellar broadcasting team of Gary Cohen, Keith Hernandez and Ron Darling love making references to the “PIX games”. I get them as part of my Extra Innings package, and occasionally I get to see snippets of Channel 11’s news if the game runs short, which as a New York expat who otherwise can’t see the station it’s a nice memory lane trip for me. And as their intrepid and Mets-loving head of research points out, that Mets-Channel 11 package is now the lone over-the-air partnership with an MLB team remaining. Ratings for both the Mets and their news are up year-over-year.
So. friend, there are still some places where the feelings and budget choices of people like yourself are valued. They just don’t happen to be in LA. At least now. The Dodgers did bow to pressure in recent years when their SportsNet LA was in a protracted stalemate with DirecTV and agreed to put several key games on WPIX’s sister station KTLA. They’re doing well and look to be in a white-hot race with San Diego and San Francisco for the division title. Perhaps they may do the same again for the benefit of those like my friend?
I mean, there’s a better chance they’ll do that the Sparks, right?