What Would – and Should – 32-Team Divisional Alignments Look Like for the NBA and MLB?

America’s major professional team sports leagues have had a long period of stability since the early part of this century, with three leagues sitting at 30 teams while the NFL went forward with 32, but that may be changing. The NHL has already increased the size of its league to 32, and by most accounts the NBA and MLB may follow suit by the end of this decade.

When it comes to organizing leagues into conferences and divisions, 32, as a power of 2, is close to an ideal number; not for nothing did baseball have two eight-team leagues for decades prior to the advent of expansion in 1961. It gives the flexibility to create either four divisions of eight teams each, as in the NHL, or eight of four, as in the NFL – with the latter being more interesting and allowing more schedule flexibility and a greater emphasis on rivalries.

On Sunday Nate Silver gave his ideal divisional alignment for a 32-team MLB, opting to go with eight divisions of four teams. This is a topic I’ve been thinking about for a while myself, and I need to get a post out by the end of the month while buying myself some time to work on more substantial posts I mostly spent this month putting off, so I decided to piggyback off of his proposal to present my own visions for how to divide 32-team leagues not only in MLB, but in the NBA and even NHL as well. 

Read moreWhat Would – and Should – 32-Team Divisional Alignments Look Like for the NBA and MLB?

The Blunt Reality Facing Oakland Sports Fans

About two weeks ago, the Nevada legislature, called into special session by Governor Joe Lombardo, passed a financing package for a new ballpark on the Las Vegas Strip for the Oakland Athletics, making that venerable franchise’s relocation to Las Vegas seemingly a fait accompli. Not since the Seattle Supersonics were inexplicably sold to a group of Oklahoma businessmen and needlessly stolen from the Pacific Northwest has a professional sports franchise relocation been more controversial and hated. Admittedly that covers a period of relative stability in franchise locations in the traditional four major sports with no teams moving after the Sonics until the NFL got serious about re-colonizing Los Angeles, and I don’t mean to denigrate the hard feelings the people of St. Louis and San Diego have about losing their NFL teams, but the backlash to the A’s pending relocation is definitely up there with the biggest ones in pro sports history, with A’s fans staying away from the stadium and their terrible team in droves except for a “reverse boycott” where over 20,000 fans swarmed the stadium in a massive show of support for keeping the team in Oakland. Owner John Fisher has been accused of following the “Major League” playbook for moving a team, intentionally driving away fans by making the team stink to better justify moving the team, while not seriously negotiating with the Oakland and Alameda County governments on a new stadium project at Howard Terminal that would have had more capacity than the Vegas stadium and given Fisher the opportunity to benefit from miscellaneous redevelopment in the area not possible in Vegas. And while sports commissioners are expected to stand by their owners no matter what, Rob Manfred’s aggressive and antagonistic remarks have further inflamed tensions and raised questions about just how good a commissioner he really is.

It’s an especially bitter pill to swallow for the people of Oakland, which stands to go from three major professional sports franchises to none in less than five years. The loss of the Raiders to Vegas and the Warriors across the bay stung, but they had their own logic to it and didn’t seem quite so unnecessary or cruel as what’s happening with the A’s. Folks in the East Bay argue that Oakland is its own city with its own culture and shouldn’t be lumped in with San Francisco and the rest of the Bay Area, and deserves its own teams separate from it. A number of commentators have made the argument that, contrary to Fisher’s and Manfred’s claims, the A’s may well actually be better off as the second team in the Bay Area, a top-ten media market, than as the one team in Las Vegas, one of the smallest markets in professional sports.

All of that may be true, but nonetheless I can’t bring myself to feel as bad for the people of Oakland as in the case of other infamous franchise relocations. When you understand how the businessmen in the front offices of the major professional sports leagues think, it becomes apparent that Oakland is just too close to San Francisco, and the Bay Area as a whole not large enough, to justify having its own separate teams, especially considering the geography of Northern California as a whole, and it’s actually a minor miracle that MLB and the NFL put up with having teams in both Oakland and San Francisco for so long. 

Read moreThe Blunt Reality Facing Oakland Sports Fans

2014 MLB Postseason Ratings Wrap-Up

Here are the viewership numbers for every game of the MLB postseason sorted by viewership. Game 7 of the World Series had more than ten million more viewers than the next-most viewed baseball game of the year.

The move of half of the pre-World Series portion of the postseason to Fox Sports 1, with one wild card game moving to ESPN, had a tremendous impact on the ratings. Only two non-World Series games, both ALCS games on TBS, had more viewers than ESPN’s Wild Card game, and only one other game beat TBS’ Wild Card game, and that only if Fox Sports 1’s analytics-based telecast of NLCS Game 1 is included in the numbers. FS1 was able to draw a larger audience to its most-watched broadcast ever, NLCS Game 4, than Fox alone drew to NLCS Game 1 (both had over five million viewers), and thanks to drawing the big-name Giants and Cardinals in contrast to the ALCS’ Orioles-Royals series, four out of five NLCS games drew a larger audience than all of TBS’ ALDS or non-primetime ALCS games, but none of FS1’s NLDS games could beat more than one primetime ALDS game, Royals-Angels Game 2, which had 3.414 million viewers.

The most-watched non-primetime game was Game 2 of the ALCS with 4.25 million viewers; the most-watched non-primetime Division Series game was Tigers-Orioles Game 1 with almost four million viewers, which started at 5:30 PM ET, followed by Orioles-Tigers Game 3 with 3.297 million viewers. Depending on definition, FS1’s most-watched non-primetime game was either Dodgers-Cardinals Game 4 at 5 PM ET with 3.267 million viewers, or Cardinals-Giants Game 3 with 2.779 million viewers, by far the smallest audience of the League Championship Series. Giants-Nationals Game 1, at just over two million viewers, was FS1’s only other non-primetime game, the least viewed non-MLBN game of the postseason, and the only FS1 game to be beaten by TBS’ least-viewed postseason game, Tigers-Orioles Game 2, a noon start that attracted 2.261 million viewers. The least-viewed non-MLBN primetime game was Dodgers-Cardinals Game 3 with 2.887 million viewers.

26 games had more viewers than the most-watched regular season game window of the season, with Dodgers-Cardinals Game 3 beating every regular season game window that wasn’t World Cup-inflated. For perspective, 30 games aired on Fox, TBS, ESPN, and FS1, all but two of which beat every non-World-Cup-inflated regular season game on ESPN.

Of MLB Network’s two games, Nationals-Giants Game 3 attracted a larger audience with 1.838 million viewers, with Cardinals-Dodgers Game 2 lagging behind with 1.785 million viewers. Both games beat last year’s MLBN games by substantial margins (last year’s most-watched MLBN game had less than a million viewers), and both games broke the previous record for the most-watched game in MLBN history, Tigers-Athletics Game 2 in 2012, which had had around 1.3 million viewers. Both games aired later in the day than previous MLBN postseason games, and Cardinals-Dodgers Game 2 competed with an extra-inning game on FS1 for much of the game, so it finished lower despite airing more of the game in primetime. Only 19 regular season windows on any network beat Nationals-Giants Game 3, including no non-“Sunday Night Baseball” ESPN windows, and that only if the YES Network audience for Derek Jeter’s final home game is combined with the MLBN audience. Only one additional regular season window beat Cardinals-Dodgers Game 2.

Only four regular season games on MLBN, probably all involving the Yankees, beat MLBN’s overflow coverage of Cardinals-Dodgers Game 1. FS2’s overflow coverage of the same game became, at the time, the ninth most-watched program in the network’s history, including its days as Fuel, and the fourth most-watched program since relaunching as FS2. To my knowledge, only one regular-season game not on Fox, ESPN, or ESPN2 beat the combined audience for the overflow coverage on both networks.

All numbers from TVbytheNumbers, TV Media Insights, and Awful Announcing. Some Fox household ratings from SportsBusiness Daily.

Read more2014 MLB Postseason Ratings Wrap-Up

2014 MLB Regular Season Ratings Wrap-Up

Putting this post together was a mess. This year coincided with the Son of the Bronx shutdown, which affected MLB far more than other sports, and while I did lean on the guy to provide MLB Network and other baseball ratings from the “gap” I didn’t realize he would only provide the top five shows on MLB Network his first few weeks on Awful Announcing, probably not enough to cover every game. His early days at AA also coincided with the World Cup dominating ESPN’s top ten, meaning I might not even have every ESPN window with over a million viewers. Conversely, he started including numbers for the TBS game late in the season (which does about as well as a medium-high MLBN game, in other words, even worse than I thought) but not quite throughout TBS’ portion of the season.

Still, here’s every MLB game I do have numbers for. A couple of factors led me to not split this post up into two parts like I did last year. First, the new TV contract meant each Saturday had at least one game on Fox Sports 1 (as Fox broadcast’s schedule compressed down to just Baseball Night in America and some September windows), and with no one knowing where FS1 was until the postseason (and only needing to find out if their team on a Fox RSN had a “regional elevate” game), many FS1 games, especially those that weren’t regional elevates, had numbers on par with MLBN games. The other, of course, was having access to TBS figures. In addition, there seemed to be more games scheduled for ESPN2 than last year, and they got some bad ratings, on par with those other three networks I just mentioned. Finally, with Derek Jeter’s last home game getting a million viewers just on YES, I rolled its numbers up with MLB Network’s figures, and the result is a game that had more viewers than any window that wasn’t on Fox or Sunday Night Baseball, before MASN’s Orioles broadcast is even factored in. Counting an RSN might be a dicey proposition – those numbers aren’t widely available for most games, and the most-watched games across RSNs and (if applicable) national telecasts would quickly fill up with Yankees and Red Sox games – but it’s ultimately the same principle as including local simulcasts of cable NFL games, and this was truly rarified air.

Numbers on cable where household ratings are available or where 18-49 ratings are not, including all games on TBS or MLB Network, from Son of the Bronx or Awful Announcing. Numbers on broadcast from SportsBusiness Daily or Sports Media Watch. 18-49 numbers, where available, from TVbytheNumbers, The Futon Critic, or TV Media Insights.

Read more2014 MLB Regular Season Ratings Wrap-Up

MLB is fixing its blackout policy!!! (not really)

Everyone loves to hate MLB’s “outdated” blackout policies. Of course the NBA and NHL have similar policies and presumably don’t allow you to watch in-market teams online, and they don’t come in for nearly as much hatred, so perhaps the hate towards MLB’s blackout policies is more part of a larger rush to rag on MLB rather than cause of what’s ailing it. Or perhaps it’s because NBA and NHL teams’ blackout areas don’t reach out to a ridiculous extent with no regard to the actual availability of the teams, with the result that areas further away from any MLB teams end up blacked out of more teams than they were if they were closer, with the end result that if you live in Charlotte, the fifth-largest market without an MLB team, you’re blacked out of the Nationals, Orioles, Braves, and Reds, with some markets blacked out of even more teams!

But fret not, because MLB Advanced Media may be about to fix those notorious blackout rules – with a catch:

In an interview this week, Bob Bowman said he is optimistic that a deal could be reached soon with various cable operators, channels and ballclubs. The catch is that even with an MLB.TV subscription, which starts at $20 a month, fans will also need a cable or satellite TV subscription to view hometown teams at home.

That doesn’t seem like it would actually fix any of the problems people have with the blackout rules. People who don’t have a cable subscription still won’t be able to watch any of their local teams’ games; okay, fine, baseball doesn’t want to fix that problem because they’re raking in too much money from RSNs, and baseball games on RSNs are the biggest obstacle to cord-cutting at the moment because of the tremendous popularity of local baseball teams. But presumably, in order to authenticate your cable or satellite subscription you’d need to actually get the RSN your team is carried on, and if you get the RSN your team is carried on you wouldn’t need MLB.tv or MLB Extra Innings to watch it in the first place!

It seems like this change is oriented more at solving another, very real but mostly unrelated, problem: how slow RSNs have been at embracing streaming. The Yankees shut down their ridiculously-expensive streaming service after five underwhelming seasons this year, leaving no US teams with any in-market streaming capabilities. The main issue appears to be that RSNs want to offer streaming at no additional cost while teams want to be reimbursed on top of what they’re already being paid to be on the RSN to begin with, at a time when virtually every national rights deal includes streaming rights, and the distinction between carriage on linear television and streaming services is an artifact of times past. MLBAM’s solution appears to be using the existing MLB.tv infrastructure to create in-market streaming for all teams through brute force, with an eye towards seeing how much extra revenue they can collect that way while still forcing customers to authenticate (though don’t expect it to be very successful when you’re charging more than what YES was charging – $20 a month v. $69.95 a year). If that’s what you want to do, that’s great, but don’t bill it as “fixing the blackout rules” when it’s not.

When and how did broadcast television lose the battle to cable?

What is the most popular programming on television this summer? What network is most attracting viewers’ attention with all the choices out there?

Is it NBC on the back of its hit reality show America’s Got Talent?

Is it CBS and its collection of shows popular with all ages, from Big Brother to 60 Minutes?

Is it ABC with shows like The Bachelorette? Or Fox with MasterChef and Hell’s Kitchen?

Perhaps it’s something on cable? Might it be TNT on the back of Major Crimes and Rizzoli and Isles?

Perhaps it’s USA on the back of the insanely popular WWE Raw?

Perhaps it’s seasonal and occasional programming like Shark Week on Discovery or Sharknado 2 on SyFy?

Perhaps it’s whatever ESPN puts on, since sports seems to be the big thing these days?

The correct answer is none of the above.

For 12 of the 24 markets where at least one relevant RSN isn’t embroiled in carriage disputes, the correct answer is the local baseball team on the local RSN, according to Maury Brown’s analysis on Forbes.com.

Several more teams place in the top three, and every single one of the 27 US teams whose RSN isn’t embroiled in carriage disputes ranks in the top nine shows in primetime in their respective markets – regardless of how they’re doing in the standings.

All told, local baseball team games add up to an average 1.99 household rating – and that doesn’t include the viewership the Dodgers and Astros would be getting if they weren’t mired in carriage disputes, or the viewership teams get from outlying markets.

For the record, the 10th-most watched show on cable TV for the week of August 4-10 only managed a 2.2 rating – and at least two shows in the top ten didn’t air in primetime.

Forget about ESPN; it may well be RSNs and the local sports they provide that keep people tied to their cable connection more than anything else.

Out of all national baseball broadcasts in 2013, only four or five of the six World Series games drew a higher rating than Detroit Tigers regular-season games averaged through the 2014 All-Star Break. Only the remaining World Series games beat the regular-season average of the Cardinals and Pirates – and one of those teams was in that World Series. And the World Series was on broadcast, while all those local games were on cable.

Perhaps most tellingly, no sports event on cable that wasn’t a BCS or NFL game drew a better rating in 2013 than the Tigers, Cardinals, and Pirates 2014 regular-season averages.

For all that I complain about the BCS (and now the CFP) and the Final Four moving to cable, perhaps it is the absence of local Major League Baseball games on broadcast television that is the real crime. Of the many reasons why I hate the existence of “MyNetworkTV”, perhaps one of the bigger ones is that it should not have been necessary to provide programming to fill the hole on stations left behind by the CW merger. Local sports, especially baseball in summer, could have more than sufficed – if those stations were willing and able to acquire it.

By the way, MyNetworkTV was founded in 2006, two years before the BCS deal that first opened my eyes to cable’s unfair advantages over broadcast and made me worried about the march of sports events to cable.

Which brings me back to the question in the title of this post: When and how did broadcast television lose the battle to cable?

Was it the advent of the dual-revenue stream pioneered by ESPN? Was it when UPN and the WB were founded, giving formerly independent stations programming commitments that made it harder for them to air local sports? Was it when – implicitly voluntarily – broadcast stations “stopped bidding for sports rights“, surrendering them, the massive ratings they entailed, and what would turn out to be a big chunk of the reason for the existence of all of linear television, to RSNs that would in turn keep people tied to their cable connection? Was it when the CW merger happened and the stations left behind formed and/or joined MyNetworkTV rather than face an uncertain future – one that could have made them far more relevant than any alternative?

Whenever it happened, one thing is clear: the disappearance of local baseball from broadcast television is one of the great underrated stories of the rise of cable, and one of the great missed opportunities of the past few decades for broadcast – and still represents perhaps broadcast television’s greatest opportunity for relevance going forward. I still think the stations exist to support a true fifth broadcast network – in large part due to stations that held steadfastly to their independence rather than join the Fox network when it launched. But given this, I’m no longer sure how many of them would want to.

What can baseball do to save itself?

That was Keith Olbermann’s intro to last night’s show, where he used the occasion of the 20-year anniversary of the 1994 baseball strike to opine on the existential threat facing baseball today – kids not getting interested in the sport and declining national TV ratings. To that I would add weak ratings, even considering the sport’s weak general ratings, among people slightly older than kids – the 18-49 demographics advertisers love. He attributes the decline of national TV ratings to the adoption of interleague play removing the novelty factor of being able to see teams you’d otherwise only be able to see if your team made the World Series, requiring baseball to find “a new reason” to watch nationally televised games even when your team isn’t playing in them, thus keeping up the value of the national TV contract and in turn keeping smaller market teams in business. What should that new reason be, and how can baseball create it?

I’m going to assume that the problem is not that baseball is an inherently boring sport, something people have been saying for decades, even though even baseball’s fans sometimes wax poetic about the sport being “passed down from father to son”, which is another way of saying the only reason anyone would be a baseball fan is because their parents brainwashed them to be. I’m going to assume the sport can be saved when a lot of damage to its currency among younger people has already been done, which also requires leaving aside factors like steroids that might have poisoned the sport for a generation, and rendered its records, once a massive part of the mythology of the sport, untrustworthy forever. Even then, baseball has signed its new TV contract and as such there are some things it can’t change, like having TBS come out of nowhere for the postseason, and it can’t inoculate itself against cord-cutting when it’s just agreed to cut its presence on broadcast TV to a few weeks in the middle of summer and September in favor of a network that might be one of the first to go if cord-cutting results in catastrophe for linear cable TV. I’m also going to leave aside things involving the game itself like speeding up the pace of play or getting rid of Joe Buck.

With that in mind, it’s worth noting that football and basketball have the equivalent of interleague play, and significantly stronger national TV ratings – in basketball’s case, in spite of the fact that it has games on every day on cable TV just as baseball does, even though that is often perceived as “oversaturating the product”. They do this because they are able to craft a national narrative larger than any individual team, one driven by stars that encourages people all over the country to pay attention. Everyone knows the Patriots are “Tom Brady’s team”, or the Broncos are “Peyton Manning’s team”, or the Saints are “Drew Brees’ team”, and they automatically know what it means when any two of those teams square off and are willing to tune in for same. Ditto for basketball where the Cavaliers are “LeBron James’ team”, the Lakers are “Kobe Bryant’s team”, or the Former Sonics are “Kevin Durant’s team”.

Baseball is a star-driven sport – certainly more so than hockey, where the stars are only on the ice one-fourth of the time and don’t really have any more impact on the outcome than the lesser lines – and should be able to take advantage of the same factors, crafting a national narrative out of its pennant races. But there also are a lot of things football and basketball has that it doesn’t:

  • Baseball has way more games in a regular season than football or basketball – nearly double the NBA’s number. Those games are divided up into series where two teams play each other day after day. When, say, the Clippers and Celtics face off, it’s an event among many similar events over the course of the season. When the Angels and Red Sox face off, they’ll face off once on MLB Network, then again on ESPN, then again on MLB Network – and if it’s on the weekend they’ll go MLB Network, then Fox or Fox Sports 1, and then ESPN. It sort of dilutes the knowledge that these two teams are facing off when you see them two to four straight days.
  • Baseball may be a star-driven sport, but not nearly to the extent of football or basketball where one good player can completely change the fortunes of a franchise. No position player has much more than a one-ninth impact on a team’s fortunes. In football and basketball, that makes it much easier for smaller markets to join the ranks of the marquee franchises. The Moneyball era has made things easier for small-market baseball teams, but the lack of a salary cap, coupled with the need to put together a complete team on a scale not necessary in football or basketball, makes it very difficult to keep the marquee teams from being a procession of the Yankees and Red Sox over and over.
  • In the case of pitchers, it’s too difficult to ensure that a pitcher is starting on the same day as one of your marquee national TV windows.
  • Football and basketball stars are usually pre-made in college. People don’t care as much about high school or college baseball, and even if a sensation does come along they generally have to toil away in the minor leagues for a while, which people care about even less unless they have a minor league team nearby or are really interested in how their major league team’s farm system is doing.

There certainly are some things baseball can do about some of these – a while back, Awful Announcing’s Steve Lepore pointed out that the seeming dichotomy between shoving the Yankees and Red Sox down people’s throats all the time, and trying to “spread around” the wealth to all 30 MLB teams, misses that what baseball fans really want is to be able to see the good teams, whether they’re the Mets and Yankees or Brewers and Royals, square off against one another on national television, and follow the pennant races that way, and to some degree MLB Network (but not ESPN, which keeps following the former approach, and Fox, which tried the latter approach this year) has done that. Many, however, are things MLB has little to no control over, and to the extent that it does it’s probably as unlikely to try them as to get rid of interleague play. Does baseball want to substantially shrink the regular season? Is it willing to take the plunge on a salary cap?

With that in mind, perhaps the best thing baseball can do to improve its long-term fortunes, specifically in small markets, is to find a way to get rid of the RSN loophole, which is a big reason so much of MLB’s revenue sharing does come from the national TV contract. What is the RSN loophole? Well, here are the ten most valuable franchises in the major leagues according to Forbes magazine:

  1. New York Yankees, $2.5 billion
  2. Los Angeles Dodgers, $2 billion
  3. Boston Red Sox, $1.5 billion
  4. Chicago Cubs, $1.2 billion
  5. San Francisco Giants, $1 billion
  6. Philadelphia Phillies, $975 million
  7. Texas Rangers, $825 million
  8. St. Louis Cardinals, $820 million
  9. New York Mets, $800 million
  10. Anaheim Angels, $775 million

What do these teams have in common? Nine out of ten of them own all or part of the regional sports network that airs their games. The tenth, the Cardinals, are valued at a third of the level of the top-ranked Yankees – mostly because their fanbase draws from such a wide area. Owning a stake in an RSN has become all the rage in recent years, because while the rights fees that teams get from their RSNs are subject to revenue sharing, the boost that a team gets from actually owning a piece of the RSN is not. That’s allowed the Yankees to remain on top of the baseball pyramid despite the revenue sharing schemes baseball has adopted in recent years, through their ownership of YES Network. It also allows teams to benefit with money not subject to revenue sharing when other teams set up shop on the same network. When the Nets do well, the Yankees do well. When the Bruins do well, the Red Sox do well. When the Bulls do well, the Cubs do well. When the Warriors do well, the Giants do well. When the Flyers or 76ers do well, the Phillies do well. When the Mavericks or Stars do well, the Rangers do well.

The next-most valuable teams that do not own a piece of an RSN are #11 Atlanta ($730 million), which also draws from a huge fanbase built over the team’s years on WTBS; #15 Detroit ($680 million), the most popular team on a per-capita basis in baseball, and both of those two teams are from two of baseball’s larger markets; #18 Toronto ($618 million), which draws from all of Canada; and finally, #19 Minnesota ($605 million) and #20 Cincinnati ($600 million), two teams in the bottom half of all major league teams with four teams valued at double their value, and that don’t even double up the poorest team in baseball, the $485 million Tampa Bay Rays. The NBA and NHL don’t have this problem, either because they try harder to reach for the RSN dollar or the existence of the salary cap reduces the incentive to own a stake. Here is the complete list of NBA and NHL teams to own a stake of their RSN: Bulls, Blackhawks, Rockets, Bruins, Celtics, Maple Leafs. The seven richest baseball teams all own stakes of RSNs, and the number of teams in other sports that own pieces of RSNs are six total.

What can baseball do about this? They could try and find a way to go after revenue obtained from owning RSN stakes and draw it into the revenue-sharing fold. They could institute a salary cap and blunt the incentive to cheat the revenue-sharing system. Or they could look at the ongoing carriage disputes plaguing CSN Houston and Sportsnet LA – not to mention how ugly the dispute between the Orioles and Nationals over MASN has gotten – and wonder if the lucrative RSN market is built on a house of cards, the scam that is the cable subscription fee model, that is starting to come tumbling down, and find a way to pre-empt them all and save even the richest MLB teams from themselves, while also putting themselves in better position than their competitors for the future of video content. Again, baseball has already signed its national TV contract and is stuck with its cable-heavy nature for the foreseeable future, and the NBA may yet go the other way, but there might still be quite a bit baseball could do on the local front.

2014 MLB TV Schedule

With the Major League Baseball season about to begin in earnest, here are all the games currently scheduled on Fox, FS1, ESPN, and MLB Network, not counting last weekend’s games in Australia. Additional games will be added on ESPN on Sunday nights, Mondays, and Wednesdays; MLB Network on Sunday afternoons, Saturdays, Tuesdays, Thursdays, Fridays, and select daytimes; and TBS on Sunday afternoons later in the season as the season progresses, plus Fox and FS1 the last two Saturdays of the season. Alternate games will be shown in local markets of MLBN games. All times Eastern.

Read more2014 MLB TV Schedule

How to Fix the Hall of Fame (And How Not to Fix It)

Maybe it was the fact that Keith Olbermann now has a sports-oriented platform with which to rail against the “banana republic” that is the Baseball Hall of Fame. Maybe it was Deadspin’s stunt where they turned over what turned out to be Dan Le Batard’s Hall of Fame ballot to the public for them to vote on. Maybe it was the continued hand-wringing over the steroids issue, or the fact not a single modern-era player was inducted the previous year, or the ballots and accompanying grandstanding and sanctimonious moralizing that made Le Batard’s stunt seem reasonable. Or maybe it was some combination of the above. Whatever the reason, despite the induction of three very worthy first-ballot candidates, this year’s Hall of Fame election became as much about how broken the election process supposedly is than about the election itself.

It strikes me, though, that many of the reforms that many writers and other commenters propose to fix the Hall miss the reasons for the rules they want to change. Doubtless the voting could be expanded beyond merely sportswriters, and writers who throw away their ballots in ways more outrageous than Le Batard did should lose them. But for example, Deadspin elected the top 10 candidates that received a simple majority of the people’s vote, rather than the 75% the Hall requires, explaining that the high threshold helps allow the process to be “hijacked by cranks, attention-seeking trolls, and the merely perplexed—people who exercise power out of proportion to their numbers due to the perverse structure of the voting.” But it should be difficult to get into the Hall; someone should only get in if there’s some sort of consensus that they’re deserving.

Nor do I buy the argument that because there are already cheaters and general assholes in the Hall of Fame, that justifies inducting the steroids users as well. Yes, the general public is ambivalent at best about the steroids issue, but the sport’s history is more important to baseball than any other sport; the steroids users have irrevocably tainted that history, and it seems odd to play up that history in one breath while backing the induction of the steroids users with the other. The single-season and career home run records, once the most hallowed in sports, will forever be untrustworthy and have an asterisk mentally if not physically attached to them, and many other records besides. Of all the players blackballed from the Hall, only Shoeless Joe Jackson might have done more damage to the game. (There’s an argument to be made that players that had Hall-worthy credentials without steroids should be inducted, which would put Roger Clemens, Barry Bonds, and possibly Mark McGwire in, but not Sammy Sosa, who no one had heard of before he came from out of nowhere in the summer of ’98, or Rafael Palmeiro, who actually received few enough votes to be dropped from the ballot this year. That a player like Sosa could effectively juice his way into a Hall of Fame career underscores why the steroids issue can’t be simply swept under the rug. I would bet Gaylord Perry would be in the Hall of Fame regardless of whether or not he spit.)

Many commentators, including Olbermann, faulted the 10-person limit for forcing voters to make very difficult choices on a loaded ballot, resulting in part in Craig Biggio missing induction by two votes. What would be the harm, they say, in allowing as many people as the voters find worthy to get in? Theoretically, if someone isn’t one of the ten best candidates on the ballot maybe they aren’t that strong a candidate after all (again, it’s supposed to be difficult to get in); but even beyond that, it’s not so much having a ton of people getting in at once than losing those people in future years. Craig Biggio will be inducted into the Hall of Fame, possibly as soon as next year. But if not next year, it’s very possible he (or someone like Mike Piazza or Jeff Bagwell) may end up saving the Hall from a repeat of 2013, when no one was inducted. It’s worth noting that even with a supposedly loaded ballot, only three people were actually inducted, and only seven even received more than half the vote. Clearly there isn’t that much consensus over which candidates are more deserving to get in over which other candidates.

Perhaps the baseball Hall could take a cue from the Pro Football Hall of Fame, which repeatedly cuts down all the numerous candidates for induction down to a list of 15 finalists, then brings the voters together Super Bowl Weekend to debate the merits of those fifteen candidates and further whittle them down to five. Result: the Pro Football Hall of Fame always inducts the maximum five modern-era players despite actually having a higher threshold for induction at 80%, and so actually tries to clear its backlogs. Obviously, given the fact that the BBWAA has hundreds of people voting, it’s impractical to get them all together to discuss the candidates, but what would be wrong with a two-stage voting system, where the first ballot cuts the list down to 10-15 finalists, who are then subject to a straight up/down vote?

Underlying the last complaint, however, seems to be the notion that someone either “is a Hall of Famer or he is not“, that it’s ridiculous for someone who wasn’t considered a Hall of Famer X number of years in the past to suddenly be a Hall of Famer now. Presumably many of these people would prefer to hold a single up/down vote on a candidate five years after their retirement, induct anyone who crosses the threshold of induction, and keep out everyone else. It’s an attractive prospect, but it seems cruel to subject a player’s destiny to a single vote at an arbitrary point in time, especially if the rules may be different at a different point in time; should Edgar Martinez’s chances be based on the luck of how the voters feel about the DH issue in one particular semi-random year? The Hall of Fame voting window allows candidates to be looked at fairly and with some degree of historical perspective; five years after retirement allows voters to vote somewhat dispassionately without being too close to the player’s career, but leaving their fate in the hands of the Veterans’ Committee after fifteen years ensures that a player’s fate lies in the hands of those who actually saw him play. That’s why I’m leery of giving Bill James a Hall of Fame vote. Bill James is awesome; he may well go in to the Hall of Fame for the way he revolutionized the way we look at the game. But Bill James perfectly encapsulates why there’s a statute of limitations on how long a player can wait before it gets much tougher for them to get into the Hall of Fame. We don’t need him engaging in historical revisionism to justify why some random player from the 30s no one at the time would have ever dreamed of getting into the Hall should get in using statistics no one at the time could have ever conceived of. It’s disingenuous for someone to complain about, say, Bert Blyleven getting in without any change in his resume in one breath and argue for Bill James to get a Hall of Fame vote with the other. It’s called the Hall of Fame, not the Hall of Great.

When figuring out how to fix the Hall of Fame (in any sport), there are a few things to keep in mind:

  • The fate of players should be in the hands of a group of electors who experienced their career as it happened, that is, not making a post facto judgment. They should also, however, have a good grasp of the standards by which someone should be considered a Hall of Famer and the historical perspective to assess players by those standards in a relatively unbiased fashion, at least as a whole. The selection process should facilitate striking a balance between these competing concerns.
  • Reasonable people will always disagree over someone’s Hall credentials. They also disagree over how stringent the standards should be for induction, with some “small Hall” people arguing that only the very best of the very best should be honored.
  • Once a player is inducted into the Hall, they become a benchmark for any other player to get in; i.e., “if player X is in the Hall, player Y should be too.”
  • Once a player is inducted into the Hall, they are never un-inducted. The body of electors should be very sure of themselves if they wish to induct somebody.

With these challenges in mind, we can begin to sketch out a proposal for organizing a Hall of Fame that reflects some level of consensus over who does and does not belong. There will, of course, continue to be debate over who does and does not belong, but hopefully even those who disagree with the Hall’s selections can agree that it reflects the consensus of those who lived through the era on the matter of the best and most important players and other figures.

One place to start would be to adopt Bill Simmons’ pyramid idea, that is, assigning all Hall of Famers to one of five tiers, with the top tier (“the Pantheon”) reserved for the very best of the best and each subsequent tier containing progressively less esteemed players until the players with the shakiest cases show up on the bottom level. I know a lot of people don’t like the idea of “ranking” the best players, feeling it makes things too much of a competition and that it becomes a case of splitting hairs between specific players as you get further down the list; shouldn’t it be enough that a player is considered a Hall of Famer? Why belittle the guys perceived to have shakier cases by placing them on a lower level or considering them not “real” Hall of Famers? However, I think this would be a good compromise between the “small Hall” guys and the more liberal guys. The “small Hall” guys would have only the guys they would allow in on the top one or two levels, while still having all the other players on the lower levels. It would serve as a way to refocus and rekindle the debate and provide some necessary clarity to the Hall, reorganizing it by players’ importance to the game and thus better allowing people to appreciate its history. Depending on what kind of Hall of Fame we’re talking about, we could use different terminology to distinguish the levels, even naming each level (for example, Bronze/Silver/Gold) if circumstances warrant.

I have a couple of issues with Simmons’ specific implementation. First, Simmons’ pyramid distributes Hall of Famers across five physical floors of the pyramid. Actual Hall of Fames, however, tend to throw all their Hall of Famers into a single literal hall; they are museums first and Hall of Fames second. The Hall may be the room everyone gravitates to and even the most prominent room, but it’s still a single room. Even the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, a place that already vaguely looks like Simmons’ pyramid (and, incidentally, by all accounts a place that makes Cooperstown look like the model of integrity) throws all its Hall of Famers onto a single level of a six-level building; the closest thing to what Simmons might be talking about might be the Hollywood Walk of Fame. There are some points in this model’s favor, even from the perspective of the Halls themselves, as it provides a single place for you to be overwhelmed by the prestige and the eminent personalities all around you, to take it all in all at once, besides the fact it allows the Hall not to overwhelm the building’s place as a museum. But this consideration doesn’t completely invalidate the model; physical differences in the honoring of each Hall of Famer, such as a plaque made of different materials or placement on the floor, could distinguish players of different tiers, which could be indicated by the personality used. For example, each plaque could have one to five stars on it and we could refer to Hall of Fame members as one-star to five-star Hall of Famers. Or we could arrange the Hall as a spiral going around a larger building, connecting with the exhibits on each floor with each full turn or half-turn, each tier arranged in chronological order or in rough order of importance within each tier, up to the Pantheon taking up the entire top floor, with statues instead of mere plaques for each Pantheon member, and if the sport has a Babe Ruth, Michael Jordan, or Wayne Gretzky, one single undisputed best player of all time, they get their statue in the center. This could be considered taking a cue from the Guggenheim Museum, which arranges its artifacts in a spiral one browses starting from the top and working their way down.

A simpler but perhaps more challenging problem has to do with the process of assigning a level to each member, which Simmons would do by taking the average score each member gets from an assignment committee, “rounded up”. The problem should be obvious: if the assignment committee consists of 50 people, 49 of them votes a member to level 1, and the 50th votes them to level 2, their average is 1.02, which gets rounded up to 2. That one single voter got them bumped up to level 2! It would seem that very few people would be selected to level 1 unless their election to the Hall at all was so tentative as to make it unlikely they would be elected in the first place. Considering part of the appeal of the pyramid for Simmons is to throw all the borderline candidates to level 1, this seems counterproductive. Even if we made a post facto argument that past decades were undeniably mistaken in putting someone in, and everyone votes them to level 1 because even those who would have voted for them agree it’s ridiculous to put them any higher, it’s hard to see how the bottom level would grow. Simmons seems to be counting on the assignment committee to disagree with the selection committee, and specifically to agree with his own judgments. (Rounding up has another, similar problem: it’s very easy for someone to get into the Pantheon just by racking up enough level 4 votes and a couple of level 5 votes to get their average just over four. “Small Hall” people would much rather round down, making it more difficult to get into higher levels; while that gives the Pantheon the opposite problem, requiring induction to be unanimous, a case could be made that if your average can’t top 2 you don’t deserve to be in level 2 or above anyway.)

Instead, I prefer to see each level and the ones above it as its own sub-Hall of Fame within the Hall of Fame. If you wish, you can consider only those in tier 2 and above “real” Hall of Famers, and “small Hall” people would prefer to restrict it to the top one or two tiers. As such, the procedure would go as follows:

  • The Selection Committee consists of a mixture of sportswriters (including bloggers), fans, players (possibly including existing Hall of Famers), coaches, historians of the sport, and other people involved with the sport and the media. The vote is weighted towards the writers, fans, and other people who have a good grasp of what it takes to get to each level and are familiar with each candidate’s case.
  • On the ballot, each voter must give each candidate a number from 1 to 5, signifying what level they would induct each candidate to, or leave it blank or mark it with a 0 to indicate that they would not elect that candidate at all.
  • A player must be given a number on 70% of the votes to be inducted, at which point they are inducted to the level at the 70th percentile of their vote. For example, to be inducted to the Pantheon at least 70% of the votes must vote you to the Pantheon. To be elected to level 3 at least 70% of the votes must put you on level 3 or above, and so on. This keeps it difficult to get inducted to the Hall and to each level; I originally considered making the threshold 60%, but I don’t want someone to get into the Pantheon when only 60% of voters agree he deserves it.
  • There may or may not be a limit on the number of players to be inducted (I would support limiting Pantheon inductions to one a year), but there is no limit on how many people may be voted in or voted to a particular level. A player that has received the necessary votes to be inducted to a particular level but is excluded due to yearly limits may have their induction postponed to the following year, but generally cannot fall below the lowest or highest level they were ever voted to.
  • If there is a difference between the median level a player is voted to and the 70th percentile, the player remains on the ballot in subsequent years; as with players pushed out due to yearly limits, they cannot fall below the lowest or highest level they were ever voted to. A player not inducted to the Hall must be chosen for induction on at least half of all ballots just to remain on the ballot the following year; a player with the votes to make the first tier must have at least half the votes naming him to the second tier in order to remain on the ballot for the chance to move up to the second tier, or else their future fate is remanded to the Historical Committee where it gets much tougher for a reassessment to find that a player was wrongfully kept out or elected to too low a level. A player may appear on fifteen ballots; once they have appeared on fifteen ballots, they are either inducted to whatever level they are voted to their final year, or the highest level they were ever voted to. (Alternatively, once a player has the votes for induction and aren’t kept out by numerical limits they are inducted to that level, but may be “re-inducted” to a higher level later.)

This is a similar system to the up/down approval voting system Deadspin and others would favor, but the addition of the pyramid and tier system turns it into a range voting variant, which for various reasons is probably the best voting system for achieving the best outcome without perverse incentives. The notion that “the first ballot is sacred” (which only succeeds in producing “second-ballot” Hall of Famers like Roberto Alomar) would become less relevant if the Pantheon (and possibly the tier or two below it) serves the role of separating the “elite” from the rank and file, and broadening the electorate beyond sportswriters helps keep people with agendas from hijacking the process. Ideally, we’d have a single vote to determine the legacy of each candidate, without candidates completely crowding each other off the ballot, without necessarily risking some induction ceremonies being too big (though more time can be devoted to players going in to higher tiers) or nonexistent, and without completely precluding reconsideration later, but only if a substantial enough number of people believe from the start that someone’s case merits reconsideration (that is, 5% of the electorate can’t keep someone who clearly doesn’t have a shot taking up space on the ballot for fifteen years).

So we have two different solutions to what seems to be the most obvious and agreed-upon problem with this year’s baseball Hall of Fame induction: an overabundance of qualified players crowding each other out because of the 10-player limit. A system similar to that of the Pro Football Hall of Fame would limit the number of candidates and make it easier to give each of the resulting finalists a straight-up up/down vote, but instituting a pyramid system would help fix some of the deeper, more systemic flaws and restore at least some prestige to America’s Halls of Fame among those who might feel it irredeemably lost.

2013 MLB Ratings Wrap-Up, Part III: Postseason Games

Here are the viewership numbers for every game of the MLB postseason, including 18-49 ratings for most games, sorted by viewership and including the tiebreaker game between the Rays and Rangers. Click here to see them sorted by series.

The Red Sox’ clincher in Game 6 of the World Series was the most-watched baseball game of the year, attracting over 19 million viewers. Unsurprisingly, especially with the Red Sox in the ALCS and World Series, every primetime game on Fox beat every game on TBS; in fact, the most watched game on TBS was a division series game, the Cardinals’ clincher in Game 5 against the Pirates. This also meant the Red Sox were involved in the 11 most-watched games of the postseason.

The most-watched game on TBS outside of primetime likely depends on definition; either Tigers-Athletics Game 4, which began at 5 PM ET, or Cardinals-Dodgers Game 5, which began at 4 PM ET. Both games had over 3.7 million viewers. The two games starting at 3 PM ET were the least-watched games on TBS; the Red Sox factor could not save Rays-Red Sox Game 1 from being the single least-viewed game on TBS. Depending on definition, the least-viewed primetime game was either Pirates-Cardinals Game 1 at 5 PM ET; the Rays-Rangers tiebreaker; or Tigers-Athletics Game 2.

28 games had more viewers than the most-watched regular season game window of the season. For perspective, a total of 36 or 37 games aired on Fox and TBS. If the Rays-Rangers tiebreaker is considered a regular season game, it was the second-most viewed of the season on cable; in all, 19 of 24 or 25 games on TBS attracted more viewers than any regular-season game on ESPN.

Of MLB Network’s two games, Athletics-Tigers Game 3 attracted a larger audience with 912,000 viewers. Pirates-Cardinals Game 2 lagged behind with 832,000 viewers.

All numbers from TVbytheNumbers, The Futon Critic, and Son of the Bronx with additional info from Sports Media Watch (see link above).

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