MLB Network thinks big for new season
Expanded 'MLB Tonight,' live look-ins, weekly games highlight changes
"A great summer for baseball fans."
That is how MLB Network CEO Tony Petitti describes this brave new world of Major League Baseball, which officially began Sunday night at Citizens Bank Park, when the Braves doused the reigning World Series champion Phillies, 4-1.
Baseball will find you everywhere in the 2009 regular season -- absolutely everywhere, like never before. It will be on a brand-new 24/7 cable network that is now in more than 50 million homes, featuring an expanded "MLB Tonight" show that will seem to last blissfully forever. It will be on your local regional sports network, on your car radio, on TBS and FOX and ESPN.
It will be live on MLB.TV over your computer in amazing high definition with DVR functionality. It will be on your desktop with MLB.com Gameday's latest enhancements. It will be on your iPhone or iPod Touch, because MLB.com At Bat 2009 just showed up in the Apple App Store and instantly shot to No. 5 overall and No. 1 in sports among apps. It's on other mobile devices, it's text/video alerts, it's everywhere.
"Obviously when you're new like we are, fans find you first, and we expect fans to come to us because they are following their local teams," Petitti said during a conference call Tuesday to discuss the network's expansion to in-season mode and how fans' routines will change. "What baseball accomplished is achieving that daily presence for fans, and this was sort of that next step, to reach fans on an anytime basis.
"With the combination of resources baseball fans have, it's going to be kind of impressive. We're also going to do the historical stuff as well. Obviously 'MLB Tonight' and our live games are the focus in-season, but also some of the focus on historical stuff and original programming that fans have enjoyed is great. With that combination, it's going to be a great summer for baseball fans, that's for sure."
Petitti was on the call along with a cast of MLB Network talent including host Matt Vasgersian and analysts Sean Casey, Al Leiter, Joe Magrane and Harold Reynolds. They talked about how it will work having a new network as an added ingredient to the fan experience, and here are some of the details:
The network's signature show will debut Monday on Opening Day. It will start at 4 p.m. ET that day, and then moving forward each weekday and Saturday it will begin at 6 p.m., broadcasting until the final game ends each night out West. This, Petitti said, will be the "differentiator" for the new network.
Sundays are all day games except for the ESPN Sunday Night game, and Petitti said that in that case, MLB Network will take a different approach. "The Sunday night show is basically a highlight show that will recap all the day's action, and we'll update throughout the night the game that's on ESPN," Petitti said.
Thursday Night Baseball will be televised by MLB Network each week starting with the April 9 Brewers-Giants game in San Francisco. How will the network handle the full slate of games while broadcasting its own?
"During our game," Petitti said, "we will go back into the studio numerous times for updates and keep people updated even during our game nights."
Reynolds, who spent many years as a studio analyst for "ESPN Baseball Tonight," said "No. 1 is the length of time we've got. Once we're past Opening Day, from 6 to the last out on the West Coast is about eight hours of baseball. The extended show really allows you to start the story, bring people forward, and finish the story on one night. And at 6 we're on, so you don't really have to worry about whether there's a game under way or not -- we're talking baseball, and that gives us a big advantage."
Bob Costas and Yankee Stadium
MLB Network has built a fabulous lineup of on-air personalities, and the biggest name to join them is Costas. Petitti said Costas will do "eight to 10 games". The first one will be historic and possibly the network's biggest live audience of the year. That will be the April 16 Thursday game between the Indians and Yankees, and it will mark the first official game in the history of new Yankee Stadium. Reynolds and longtime pitching great -- and former Yankees TV voice -- Jim Kaat will be Costas' partners in the booth that day.
One of the coolest parts of the "MLB Tonight" experience will be the ability for fans to tap into all the concurrent broadcasts on a typical night. Petitti said the MLB Network is in the process of "finalizing the rules" and within a couple of days of determining exactly how often and how long a look-in can occur.
"More than once per game, with some sort of minute limit on how long each look-in is, and the total amount of time we can spend on any one game," he explained. "The rights that we have to any programming content flow from the Commissioner's office. We're not dealing directly with the RSN's (regional sports networks) in terms of rights. There's not any combative relationship at all -- quite the opposite."
Petitti came to MLB Network from CBS Sports, where he was executive vice president and executive producer -- an instrumental force in the annual delivery of college basketball's Big Dance. Ironically, his new team starts its full-court press at exactly the same time that the NCAA Tournament will be playing its championship game.
"We're excited about the transformation now to the regular season, having gone through most of the offseason from Spring Training to the World Baseball Classic, and now to take advantage of the great analysis on the set every night and the ability to have live look-ins, we want to duplicate the feeling you get on March Madness every night," he said. "Obviously it's not a one-and-done situation for these clubs, but I think we can duplicate that feeling and get fans caught up with whenever they want to enjoy."
The network launched on New Year's Day, and is has gradually built up to this point of expansion. Once the full routine is established, Petitti said, "I think we'll end up attracting more of the casual fans as the season progresses. People will find us on a nightly basis and use us as a resource. We'll tap into that across the country. The great local interest is going to be our No. 1 resource.
"There are always going to be times that players don't like something that is said," Magrane interjected, "but we're geared not toward the players but the fans. The hardcore, junky fan to the casual fan as well -- there's definitely something for everyone."
Vasgersian quipped: "I'm sure we're going to take 100 percent of viewers away from the Style network and 'E' -- we're catering to the shut-in and disenfranchised and most of the merchant marines around the world."
In other words: It's just going to be more baseball, further filling up a lifestyle that yesterday's baseball fan never could have imagined. MLB Network will be "coverage you can count on," a familiar friend on the remote every day.
"We are all clearly excited for Opening Day around here," said Vasgersian, who spent the previous seven years as a Padres play-by-play broadcaster. "This is kind of what we all came here for. Opening Day is going to start a different process for us, a different feel around here, and in pretty quick time it's going to evolve -- or devolve, depending on how you look at it -- into three or four guys talking baseball for three or four hours a night. Which is really exciting for us, because it's what we all do.
"Between the live look-ins and the ballpark cams and highlights and commentary, it's going to be a constant baseball discussion. You're going to get a little of this and a little of a lot when it comes to the big leagues. It's going to be fun for us."
It is fun so far for Sean Casey, who last year was coming off the bench for the Red Sox and appearing in an American League Championship Series. Now he is a retired Major Leaguer, and by all accounts enjoying his new life as a broadcast analyst. Based on the results so far, it will be a pleasure hearing his views along with those from the many other former MLB veterans who comprise this new network's discussion.
"I'm really enjoying it here," he said. "It's been a great transition to me, coming off the field last year and coming into the studio this year, because with the access we have it keeps you in the loop of the league. So it's a great thing coming into the MLB Network."
Mark Newman is enterprise editor of MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.