- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 24, 2008

For Major League Baseball, there is never too much of a good thing, especially when that good thing is its own product.

On New Year’s Day, the sport of sluggers and shortstops will have its own 24-hour home on television with the debut of the league-owned MLB Network on cable systems throughout most of the country.

All baseball, all the time.

“We did a fair amount of consumer research, a lot of which said fans wanted more,” said Tim Brosnan, baseball’s executive vice president for business operations. “This gives us an enormous opportunity to feed our fans, and they’re telling us they want more, and they’ll tell us when they’ve had enough.”

It would seem remarkable that fans would demand more baseball on television. After all, virtually every game is available in local markets of all 30 teams, and the league has national deals with ESPN, Fox Sports and TBS, along with a service that offers games online.

But network executives said there is always something more to show. Consider that on New Year’s Day, the network will broadcast something unseen for more than 50 years: the original film of Don Larsen’s perfect game from Game 5 of the 1956 World Series, plus new commentary from Larsen and his catcher, Yogi Berra. Specials like the Larsen game could become a staple of the MLB Network; it will have access to more than 300,000 hours of archived footage that have lacked an outlet for years.

“Fans wanted more of our library to be on television,” Brosnan said. “We were told people wanted to understand more of the history of the game. People wanted to be more inside the game. They wanted more of the clubhouse brought to them, and they didn’t want just the local teams.”

The new network will broadcast from Secaucus, N.J., following millions of dollars in studio upgrades to a facility once housed by MSNBC. New additions include the 10,000 square-foot Studio 42, named after Jackie Robinson and modeled after the inside of a ballpark, and a smaller Studio 3, named after Babe Ruth. The network is investing in two high-definition cameras in every stadium in the majors and has hired a roster of well-known anchors, reporters and analysts, including Matt Vasgersian, formerly of Fox Sports, and former major leaguers Barry Larkin, Harold Reynolds and Dan Plesac. The network also hired former New England Sports Network host Hazel Mae and former Fox Sports Net Wisconsin reporter Trenni Kusnierek.

The MLB Network will show 26 games this upcoming season, all on Thursday nights. In addition, the network will have several studio shows, including “Hot Stove,” a wrap-up of trade and free agency news, and “Prime 9,” a show in which fans rank the top nine in various baseball-related categories. In all, the network expects to have 1,400 hours of live programming in its first year.

During the season, the network will be anchored by “MLB Tonight” a live show featuring highlights and analysis of that night’s games around the country. The show will come on the air at 6 p.m. and go off at the completion of games on the West Coast - meaning as much as eight hours of live baseball talk. The network can cut to live broadcasts at any time in the case of special events, such as the final inning of a possible no-hitter.

During the offseason, officials said they hope to fill the hours with coverage of the World Baseball Classic and Caribbean World Series. And, executives said, the offseason will provide the network a chance to use the league’s vast archive of game and news footage.

“If [network president and CEO Tony Petitti] and his guys can dream it up, we can supply him the library to do it,” Brosnan said.

Reynolds, who has spent the last year with MLB.com and was previously an analyst with ESPN, said he anticipates the studio broadcasts to be less frenetic than other sports channels, which often must fit a night’s worth of game action into less than an hour.

“We can take our time,” he said. “There is no rush. Often times, when you were trying to make a point, it’s like ‘you have two minutes, OK. Hurry up.’ Now if you want to go back and make a point, you can do it.”

The notion of a league-owned network isn’t new; the NFL, NBA, NHL and several college conferences have launched cable channels in recent years. Baseball may be late in launching compared to other leagues, but it will have a major edge in one key area: distribution. The MLB Network will debut in 50 million homes, immediately more than any other league-owned network and the widest initial distribution for any cable channel in history. That distribution did not come easily. The network held tense negotiations last year with Comcast, Time Warner and DirecTV that resulted in the league giving partial ownership shares to the carriers. But the league now will avoid the high-profile distribution battles that have plagued the NFL Network and others.

“We probably would not have built the facility and the production plan the way we built it without the 50 million homes,” said Petitti, a former executive with CBS Sports. “The business model wouldn’t support it. To be able to focus on just growing and focus on the content and production instead of trying to figure out how we’re going to get people to put us on the air is a big relief.”

Long term, baseball officials said they hope to distribute the market to every possible cable home, potentially competing with other broadcasters for the rights to the playoffs and even the World Series.

“We want to be able to take on anything,” Petitti said. “So in five years or so when those deals come up we would love to be considered a viable alternative. Our distribution will need to grow some, and we think it will, but we think production-wise and programming-wise we’ll be more than ready for that. The goal is to have as much meaningful baseball on the network as possible over time.”

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