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MLB’s TV backbone would be damaged by absurd season idea

#MLB’s TV backbone would be damaged by absurd season idea

June 6, 2020 | 6:01pm

We know that the stakes for the country, the continent — the world — couldn’t be much lower when it comes to Major League Baseball’s barnyard battle with the MLB Players Association.

The coronavirus spikes in some states even as it wanes elsewhere. George Floyd’s murder by Minneapolis police officers has generated extremely necessary protests and discussions about the obvious systemic racism in the United States. The most important presidential election of our lifetime looms in November. Held up against all of that, baseball and its silly infighting feel about as insignificant as “Tiger King.”

What about the stakes for baseball, though? Though it’s rote to say that baseball would destroy itself with too short a season or no season at all in 2020, what would the tangible consequences actually be?

If such scenarios wouldn’t serve as a bona fide death blow, they would strike baseball in its backbone: the regional sports networks. And a serious enough strike to the spine can paralyze.

Let’s point out that even if MLB had managed its own house far better than it actually has since the March 12 shutdown — if it had expeditiously reached agreement with the players on dollars and health/safety issues for the restart — life still would not be peaches and cream for anyone. All endeavors that depend upon attendance revenue are going to take a big hit for a long time, right? Would you pay to attend a ballgame or a concert right now if you could? I’d sooner let Bill de Blasio spot me at his gym.

Alas, baseball, dealt the toughest hand of all the sports due to the pandemic’s timing, finds itself amid an ugly disagreement. The idea of a 50ish-game season, which seemed a ludicrous threat only days ago, gains momentum with the players (understandably) refusing to accept a pay cut beyond their prorated 2020 salaries and the owners (shortsightedly) contending that the prorated pay works economically only with such a ridiculously short schedule. I still say that low-interest or no-interest deferrals should bridge the gap from 50ish games to 82, though I was an English/Communication double-major in college and not a particularly adept one, at that.

 Michael Kay, David Cone and Paul O'Neill
Michael Kay, David Cone and Paul O’NeillRobert Sabo

Beyond statistical credibility and general customer dissatisfaction, a 50-game season also would inflict considerable damage upon the teams’ bread and butter, their RSNs, many of which — like YES and SNY — are owned at least in part by the same people who own the teams.

Supply arguably serves as baseball’s biggest asset. An RSN can build around a baseball team because of that supply. Even a team like the Yankees, that frequently gets broadcast nationally on FOX or ESPN, gives its RSN more than 130 games to televise. That constitutes some serious programming, all the more so when you factor in pre- and postgame shows and rebroadcasts.

Now knock that 130 games or so down to, let’s say, 40, accounting once more for national telecasts. How do RSN’s explain that to their cable carriers, who charge subscriber fees based on the assumption of a full baseball season? How many subscribers will bail on such a tiny schedule? How many prime advertisements won’t get sold? It all adds up to a potential bloodbath.

Baseball faces further headaches because deals with two of its three national broadcast partners, ESPN and TBS, expire next season — the agreement with FOX runs through 2028. If the current labor discord bleeds over into next year, the last year of the basic labor agreement, then MLB hardly would find itself in an optimal position to negotiate new deals.

Ironically, its ace in the hole on the national TV front happens to be the same one the players currently hold over the owners: expanded playoffs. The potential of those extra October nail-biters — people still remember the 1995 playoffs despite the labor-related garbage that preceded them — can soothe hurt feelings. Just as the players’ control over an extra postseason round this year and next might get them some more concessions.

So yes, even as most of us fry bigger fish, baseball faces dire ramifications, if not necessarily fatal, for whiffing on this. Which is why I still believe the two sides will find common ground on a more palatable arrangement. They can’t possibly be so bull-headed as to severely sabotage their own product, can they?

(Maybe don’t answer that right now and give it another week.)

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