Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Fox and Baseball's Roots
By Blogger

Do you like your Joe Buck in chunks or pureed? Clearly, Major League Baseball likes its fans diced and fried. By agreeing to 7 more years of Fox, and partnering with TBS for the first round of the playoffs, MLB has flagrantly ignored product quality in favor of up front cash.

Now, I'm generally of the view that the game sells itself. Baseball fans will watch and listen to the playoffs and the World Series no matter who announces them. If Albert Pujols is hitting line drives, if David Wright is laughing about his home runs, if eight of the fifteen best teams are in the playoffs, the fans will be there. Say what you will about Joe Buck's "I refuse to get excited unless Randy Moss pretends to moon the crowd" style or Timmy McCarver's semi-senile Brandon-isms, they are not the big problem. The big problem is that Fox doesn't believe the game can sell itself.

Football lends itself to spectacle, since each team only gets one game per week, so the carnival presentation of industrial sound effects and animations for every graphics change make sense on some level; it's difficult to overload when it's on so infrequently. For baseball, however, it's just tiresome. For the most part, local broadcasts don't pull that crap because they know the cumulative effect detracts from the product.

Where Fox is bad for baseball is in the long term. By treating baseball like they treat football, the implicit message is that baseball is boring, inherently dead, and needs extraneous kinetic energy. However, baseball's pacing and traditions are the virtues the game is built upon. The worst part of just about any modern ballpark experience, in this English major's opinion, is the loss of conversation time between innings thanks to loud music and teams' insane compulsion to create spectacle.

It appears that MTV is the model for baseball game presentations these days, but MTV was never meant to be a group activity like watching a baseball game is. As far as actually attending games, do teams really think that fans will stay away if there isn't any loud music or t-shirt giveaways between innings? Of course not. Does Fox really believe that their ratings will drop if they don't go for sensory overload? I'd think the quality of the teams and the games would have more to do with it than anything else.

What I'm most afraid of, though, is that Fox and MLB have created a self-fulfilling prophecy. We're at the point where there is an entire generation of baseball fans who don't know what the NBC broadcasts were like, let alone the CBS broadcasts. If Fox-style broadcasts and sensory overload at the ballpark become the norm, how can we expect kids to understand that the game is best experienced as an ongoing conversation, that it's a social exercise to heckle opposing players cleverly, to argue intelligently about the game with the fans around you? What will happen when going to a baseball game without NBA-style constant music becomes "boring", regardless of the game itself? What will happen when television broadcasts seem unspeakably dull to people if they don't see a color-coded flame telling them how hard a guy threw the pitch?

The game will die from the roots up. Baseball has never been about spectacle except during the playoffs at the highest level. It used to be about playing with your friends on the sandlot the way basketball is played everywhere every day now. In recent years, baseball's been about getting outdoors on the grass and dirt and playing in front of your parents and your teammates' parents in organized leagues. That's your audience. All the way up through the smaller college programs, that's who watches kids play. High school football and basketball games get cheerleaders and marching bands and the drum corps and cheering sections. High school baseball games get parents talking about batting stances in the bleachers on the first base side. It's a completely different culture.

So, when Fox decides that every game is a spectacle, it advocates a flawed picture of what's good about the game. It implies that only the exceptional is worthy of notice, and while that works for football, since every play is a relatively rare event (only about 3,200 per season) a baseball team sees more than 50,000 pitches per year. In that context, a full bore attack on the nervous system makes no sense. Rather, the drawn out character study, fleshed out by constant conversation and debate, fits the sport's nature.


Blogger Matt Brown said...

I work for an organization partially owned by News Corp. and with a highly lucrative relationship with FOX Sports, so I feel that I shouldn't go into too much detail on this.

But I do have to say, David, even though you I am fairly sure have never been in or privy to a meeting with FOX excecutives and producers, you have hit the network's attitude towards baseball squarely on the head. FOX does not believe the game of baseball can sell itself.

I say this thinking is ludicrous. The ratings are not going to rise or fall based on whether you use the voice of Spongebob Squarepants as the persona of a cartoon baseball. The game will determine it.

The good news is, even with FOX and the Access Hollywood-i-zation of ESPN, there are places to get a pure baseball broadcast. As you said, many local TV broadcasts are excellent (I am partial to the Red Sox, Mariners and Tigers crews, among others). Even better, get XM satellite radio and tune in while you're driving or doing work around the house. Baseball is the greatest radio sport, and on the radio it sounds the same as always, like a conversation.

Even the ballpark experience has its holdouts. I moved to Chicago last fall and took in my first game at Wrigley Field in April. It was the best baseball park experience I'd had in years. No sideshows. No T-shirts on rocket launchers. No music except for the occasional organ. Not even a videoboard. Pure, joyous baseball.

If you don't live near Wrigley, I recommend college games in person. Even big-time college basketball and football shun the side entertainment, and the music comes from the band.

12:41 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

i completely agree with this post.

to the above commenter, outside of dave niehaus (who has lost a step the last couple of years), the m's broadcasting team is atrocious. ron fairly, rick rizzs, david henderson, and dave valle show up in various combinations to make my ears bleed. it's inane and fact-free commentary at its worst.


1:12 PM  
Blogger David Arnott said...

Thanks for the comments, guys. Matt, just to go off your Wrigley experience, my dad has said that one of the best ballgames he's attended in the past twenty-five years was a ho-hum regular season game at Candlestick Park against the Cubs in 1991... because it was Turn Back the Clock Day, and they turned off all music, all announcements, all electronic scoreboards, and the Jumbotron. They set up a hand-operated scoreboard in right center, and used the PA before the game only to remind people there would be no announcements during the game. I remember being there, but I was so young it didn't make as much of an impression as it did on my dad. This is also coming from someone who attended the 1989 NLCS games in SF (Will Clark, Mitch Williams), the 1984 All Star Game, and numerous other memorable games.

3:41 PM  

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