Friday, November 5, 2010

What the NFL has and how Baseball can get it

After musing on the uniqueness of baseball's "moment" followed up by the ineptness MLB's marketing FAIL, I got to thinking about the NFL.

The NFL has many many things that baseball does not, and baseball can only hope to emulate portions of its success. (For one thing, baseball will never be as easy to gamble on as football which inherently puts it a few steps behind.) One thing that the NFL has that baseball does not is community.

Every NFL fan, regardless of their team affiliation, sits down to watch their game Sunday at the same time, or close to it. Immediately that creates a bond. You can call your friend who's a rabid Jets fan in New York and know he's watching his game at the same time as you're sitting down to watch the Bears.

Not only that, but you watch a pre-game not only just for your team, but for every team and game. During your game, you get highlights from other games. At half-time, you get summaries of every other game happening. If your Titans have already put the game away, and there's a more interesting game on, you can change to the other game if you have the fancy TV package. Even if you don't, there's probably another game on you can watch, or there will be in a few hours. An average fan with just a TV antenna has access to 3-5 games a Sunday.

The point is, even if you're just a Cowboys fan, you're inherently more exposed to the other teams in the league than your average baseball fan, and your more knowledgeable as a result. Then when you go to work the next day, or talk to your friends, you have a larger shared experience to discuss. When the playoffs roll around, even if your team doesn't make it, you already know something about the teams playing and their storylines without even trying to follow a team other than your own.

Baseball doesn't have that same national community only because it does not cultivate it. Part of that is by design. When baseball faltered in the mid-90's, the league turned to baseball's regional popularity for survival. It helped save the game, but now it's time to move on.

Baseball's never going to have the same national TV contract structure that the NFL has, but it can take some simple and easy steps to help build its community. Baseball can integrate its existing local TV deals. Require teams to share footage during the games. That way, even if I'm watching the Pirates/Nationals game I can still see a walk-off home run in Cleveland moments after it's happened. Expose the average fan to what's going on in the rest of the league passively. Don't make them turn into Sportscenter later.

ESPN's not going to be happy about that, but calm down. You're not going to get every highlight integrated into your local TV broadcast. You're only going to get some and you're not going to get the same perspective and analysis you get on Baseball Tonight.

You've already got the MLB Network. Make it the centralized highlight hub and provider for every local broadcast. That way the local broadcast doesn't have to have the infrastructure and you get the free advertising for your network. If the local broadcasters balk at the loss of airtime, pay them. It's invaluable advertising for the league and the game. In fact, buy out the break between one inning every game and run a little "half-time show" out of your MLB Network studios.

Now perhaps I'm getting carried away, but I could get more carried away. I could suggest that MLB treat its Saturdays the way the NFL treats Sundays. Have every game east of the Mountain Time Zone start at 1 Eastern. Have every game west of the Mountain Time Zone start at 2 Mountain. Have one game Saturday night. You could arrange that however you wanted with 1 game at 12 Eastern and lots of games Saturday night. The point is, have them happen at the same time, have a national pre-game show, expose viewers to highlights from other teams, and cultivate the community the NFL enjoys.

All of that is a long way from happening, but its certainly possible if MLB wants it to happen. The easiest and the first step is to allow in-game highlights from across the league. Make it feel like you're watching more than just one game. Make it a larger shared experience. Make it a community.

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