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Baseball Returns As Playoff Format Debate, Houston Astros Cheating Scandal Raise Questions About Future Of ESPN, Turner TV Rights

Deadline — Dade Hayes

Major League Baseball teams returned to the field this week for the start of spring training. Grapefruit and Cactus league play has been an annual ritual for more than a century ahead of the spring start of the regular season, but this year there are as many existential questions as fastballs flying through the air.

Some of the uncertainties swirling around America’s (Ex?) Pastime, from the Houston Astros’ widening cheating scandal to significant potential changes to the playoff format, are likely to affect the sport’s TV value in the months ahead, as two significant rights deals are set to be negotiated before they expire in 2021.

The Astros began spring training Thursday with an awkward and not entirely successful press conference. Players and owner Jim Crane addressed the scandal that has come to light over recent months, a brazen scheme (even by baseball’s own pine-tar standards) involving trash cans and video cameras. The team admitted to breaking the rules and fired manager A.J. Hinch as well as top front-office personnel after revelations the team was stealing signs en route to championships. But the lack of contrition (“We won the World Series and we’ll leave it at that”) should see the Astros wearing a target on their backs for a while.

MLB, meanwhile, is considering dramatic changes to its playoff format, which could take effect in 2022. As the New York Post first reported this week, the postseason pool could expand from 10 to 14 teams — nearly half of the total of 30 clubs. There would also be a made-for-TV selection show, in which the top-ranked regular-season teams would get to choose which team they face in the playoffs. The proposed overhaul was blasted as radical desperation in some corners but surprisingly welcomed by veteran commentators like Bob Costas and Chris Russo. The latter proclaimed, “Bottom line, you get eyeballs watching sets.”

On top of the playoff tweaks, MLB is also trying a range of things to speed up the pace of play — a common knock on the sport in a revved-up, TikTok media landscape, especially with all World Series games beginning at 9 PM ET. The list of remedies at various stages of implementation includes a pitch clock and rules designed to limit the number of pitching changes. The average game still takes longer than 3 hours to play — that’s comparable with an NFL football game, except baseball plays 162 games in its season, hardly taking a day off for six months.

Lee Berke, a sports media consultant and former executive at MSG Network, said other sports frequently revamp their rules without too much of an outcry. “But baseball purists complain about everything,” he told Deadline with a chuckle. “It’s like it’s carved on a stone tablet, but ultimately the game does change” through innovations like the designated hitter, divisional realignment and inter-league play. “They’re really trying to get things in shape in order to shine in front of the distributors and advertisers they need to attract,” he added.

ESPN and Turner currently have rights deals that will expire in 2021 and will both likely have an exclusive window when they could re-up. Other potential suitors if it becomes a wider auction could include ViacomCBS, NBCUniversal and DAZN, the emerging sports streamer run by former ESPN president John Skipper. Fox pre-empted other potential suitors by working out a extension of its MLB package through 2028. That deal, worth a reported $5.1 billion, includes the World Series and League Championship Series each October.

As a business, baseball is solidly profitable, but its TV fortunes are in a somewhat vulnerable state, which is motivating stakeholders to consider dramatic changes to the on-field product. National baseball broadcasts — in particular the October playoffs — have been in a long-term decline, apart from peak must-see moments like the Chicago Cubs’ 2016 title run. Locally, though, the sport remains dominant and is the lifeblood of regional sports networks, and most MLB teams regularly lead all programs in primetime in their markets during the summer months.

The last time ESPN shelled out for MLB rights, it was a $5.6 billion deal in 2012 that doubled the amount of the previous pact. But that was when pay-TV subscriber levels were near an all-time high, before cord-cutting and competing entertainment options would cause its penetration fall by nearly 20%. Today, ESPN’s majority owner, Disney, is all-in on streaming. It started down that path by gaining control of BAMtech, MLB’s digital arm, and then launching ESPN+ and Disney+. That new strategic orientation raises the prospect of live baseball broadcasts being ticketed for ESPN+ if the company re-ups. While no one believes it will happen anytime in the next few years, Disney CEO Bob Iger this week said he sees ESPN becoming “far more of a direct-to-consumer product” down the line.

Turner, meanwhile, is now owned by AT&T and has been part of an all-out reset of WarnerMedia as it prepares to launch streaming service HBO Max in May. Management has promised to add a live sports element to HBO Max by 2021, but hasn’t offered any specifics. Muddying the water at WarnerMedia has been the existence of a handful of streaming services that could clutter the path of HBO Max. Among them is B/R Live, the Bleacher Report streaming extension that has carried live games and other programming for the past two years. Its fate once HBO Max launches is unclear and the company has never disclosed any of its subscriber or viewership numbers.

Berke for one doesn’t see the Astros scandal — which has affected other teams, including the Boston Red Sox and New York Mets amid reports of similar cheating efforts elsewhere — as being a drag on ratings or rights deals. “Every major sport wants to see their games as legitimate,” he said.

“As long as they’re being dealt with, then there will be complaints and there will be controversy, but people will go back to watching the games,” he said.

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