Hackett: Want to fix baseball? First step, fire ESPN

Jim Hackett
July 25, 2018 - 8:38 pm

USA Today Sports


Every year around the All-Star break the conversation about fixing Major League Baseball’s problems and the perceived issues the game has during the modern era ramps up. 

The conversation has been escalating for some time now and many of the issues are tangible. Measures to improve the game range from subtle ideas like adding a pitch clock to improve the pace of the play, while other suggestions are more drastic like cutting the length of games from nine innings to seven. As a lifelong baseball fan, I welcome any and all suggestions to help improve the game’s future moving forward. 

In Boston, baseball fans are blessed with a historic must-see ballpark, a team that for the most part is perennially in contention and a passionate invested fan base that fills the ballpark to full capacity nearly every night. However, Boston is an anomaly in the world of baseball as the sport across the country simply does not mirror this market. 

Baseball has issues.

I’m open to meaningful changes that not only help keep the game alive but to help it thrive. Off the top, Major League Baseball needs a rebranding and that starts with a new dance partner, something MLB desperately needs. Games on ESPN’s Sunday Night Baseball broadcast feel tired and old.  The presentation has become lazy and unchanged for way too many years. It’s time for a new package, “a little touch up and a little paint” as The Boss might croon.

Here’s a look at the ESPN Sunday Night Baseball opening presentation from year 1 in 1990.

Sound familiar? This has essentially been the same open and presentation for what is now 28 years. How many cars have you driven, owned or leased in the last three decades? Or how many pairs of sneakers? I’m guessing that you have changed brands or styles once or twice. We’ve had five different presidents during this time. The ESPN Sunday Night Baseball packaging is both boring and lazy, but the issues MLB has with its ESPN partnership go way beyond the label.

Once upon a time, ESPN Sunday Night Baseball was one of the best programs to watch each and every Sunday night. The broadcast team of Johnny Miller and Joe Morgan during their broadcasting primes were bordering on must-see television for baseball fans. It was new and fresh, the games felt like a big deal even if they often weren’t. However, ESPN obviously missed the press release some 20 years ago that since 1998, Sunday night has become the best television night of the week for households all over America.

It all started with HBO’s smash hit The Soprano’s which initially pre-dated the on-demand era and kept people stuck to their sofa’s from 9pm-10pm each and every Sunday night. Think about some of the stellar programming we’ve seen just on HBO and Showtime on Sunday night’s over the last 20 years like Homeland, Billions, Six Feet Under, Game of Thrones, Dexter, The Wire and Deadwood just to name a few.

All the while what has ESPN done to compete or even react? That would be nothing. 

In these light-speed like busy times, for many, Sunday night has become the go-to TV watching night for couples thanks to the great shows provided by HBO, Showtime and others. Newsflash to ESPN, they’re not watching Sunday Night Baseball on couple’s TV night. Even when the Red Sox are on Sunday Night Baseball, it’s tough to peel yourself away from a show like say Game of Thrones or Homeland that you may be fully invested in. But the folks at ESPN just keep on keeping on, ignoring the trends and the needs of the audience it is supposed to serve.

While Sunday Night Baseball is fledgling and its TV competition continues to gain popularity, how about a move to Friday or Saturday night? Seems like a smart move. They would reach more of the crowd that is out where the TV at the restaurant or bar is on and you’d be giving the audience something new to see during what are otherwise rather bland TV nights. As ESPN’s popularity, ratings and revenue are very publicly known to be declining, their lack of action and creativity surrounding their MLB product and baseball in general isn’t helping. In fact, sadly, their inaction is dragging the national popularity of the sport down with their own sinking ship.

I saw the Red Sox play on FS1 over a couple of Saturday’s this season and found the games and the broadcast greatly refreshing. A couple of new voices, a different network with fresh opinions and style made a difference in my viewing experience. For me it underscored the boredom I experience with ESPN’s baseball presentation, the thrill is most certainly gone and this is exactly what MLB doesn’t need. Lazy, boring, politically correct, fearful of change and antiseptic is no way to go through life son…

Look at what NBC does with just one NFL game per week – Sunday Night Football.

Now granted, football is a different animal, with its weekly game schedule perfectly lending itself to the modern era of entertainment and content consumption, but that doesn’t take away from how well they present the product. Al Michaels and Cris Collinsworth are still at or at least near peak form, the pre-game and half time packaging and presentation is solid and when Faith Hill’s time was up, in came Carrie Underwood to kick off the festivities.  It makes me wonder, if ESPN had an introduction like Sunday Night Football would it feature Ethel Merman eventually passing the torch to Bea Arthur?

The TV deal with ESPN is contracted through the 2021 season. I for one am hoping that one of the major networks like Fox, NBC or CBS that has the bandwidth to take this on can pry MLB away and help refresh its product. Friday and Saturday night games, a new look, new voices, new opinions and the potential to reach a new audience should be intriguing to MLB, as a fan it is to me.

These changes won’t solve all of baseball’s problems, but they certainly couldn’t hurt.