MLB Network Playoff Gamble Pays Off, Aids Viewers

Criticisms regarding the length of games and pace of play are likely to continue being a focus for commissioner Rob Manfred as he continues to court a younger audience. Baseball games themselves remain MLB’s main product. Increasingly, however, access to that product has become an issue — an issue that could dwarf any pace-of-play problems in the coming years. As more consumers ditch cable, the lifeblood of Major League Baseball television revenues, fewer fans will have access to MLB games. Access is particularly important in the playoffs, where games receive the most national attention, and MLB’s decision in recent years to broadcast multiple games from it own MLB Network have limited viewership. However, MLB’s decision this season to offer a free preview of the network during the first week of the playoffs appears to have paid off.

There was once an outcry when playoff games moved from network television to cable, but that battle — to the degree that it ever existed — has been long lost. The World Series still airs on FOX, but both League Championship Series now appear exclusively on cable, as does the Division Series. Baseball isn’t alone in this regard, either. While the NFL, with its relatively light postseason schedule (only 11 games total), has managed to avoid moving games to cable, the NBA broadcasts both of its conference finals on cable networks. The NCAA’s championship games for both basketball and football, meanwhile, are found on channels that require a cable subscription. MLB’s decision to use its own network represents a bit of a difference case, however, than either of these.

MLB Network has been carrying playoff games for multiple years now, but with just 30-some posteason games available, the decision to remove two of them from wider circulation on standard cable packages — in essence to promote the league’s network — is a bit of a gamble, representing the equivalent of a healthy advertising investment. Broadcast networks are available in roughly 95% of television households, so putting a game on FOX renders it almost universally accessible to all baseball fans. Moving from FOX to say ESPN, TBS, or FS1 lowers that number to around 75-80% of television households. While that number might not be ideal, the number of subscribers approaches 100 million and reaches a vast majority of fans — both those who already fans of the game, as well as those who might be in the future. MLB Network lacks those numbers.

What else MLB Network lacks is the history, broad appeal and negotiating power of networks like TBS and ESPN. FS1, which also lacks the same history, originally found its way into so many households by way of its previous identity as the Speed network. The low carriage fees associated with the motorsports network made it available on many basic cable plans.

The goal of any cable network is (a) to appear within as many basic cable channel packages as possible (b) at the highest fee possible. ESPN has maximized both, receiving great revenue both from per-subscriber fees extracted from cable providers as well as advertising. A network like TBS charges much less per subscriber, but has a ton of viewers that generate solid advertising fees.

Without the advantages of networks like ESPN or TBS, MLB Network typically ends up in expanded tiers or in a sports-tier add-on. As a result, their subscriber numbers are considerably lower than other networks offering playoff games. The graph below shows the number of subscribers for many of the sports networks, from Nielsen data collected by Sports TV Ratings.


MLB Network currently has around 66 million subscribers. That’s not an insignificant number, of course. But for context, consider: they would need to increase by more than a third to reach the likes the ESPN, ESPN, and FS1. The other cable network airing playoff games, TBS, is available in 93 million homes, higher than even ESPN. This presents MLB Network with a bit of a problem. While the network began in 2009 in 50 million homes without broadcasting playoff games, part of their current selling point to cable providers is that, “Hey! We are relevant to average fans! We broadcast playoff games!” That pitch has likely helped the network get into as many homes as it has on the expanded (digital/signature, etc. depending on the provider) tiers that many cable subscribers find sufficiently attractive to pay an additional fee. Without those games, it’s possible the network might find itself more likely to be pushed into less desirable packages, where it would have more difficulty gaining subscribers. Unfortunately, that sales tactic still leaves several playoff games with a significantly reduced potential audience.

For the first few years, MLB simply toughed it out and dealt with the lower ratings for the games broadcast on MLB Network. This year, perhaps due to some confidence that it had established itself as a fixture in its cable-package tiers, the network decided to attempt to reach more viewers. Before the playoffs, MLB Network announced a free preview from October 6 to 11, so almost everyone with a cable subscription could see the MLB Network’s broadcasts, including Game 2 of the Giants-Cubs series and Game 3 of Nationals-Dodgers. So for just a few games, based on MLB Network’s estimates, the graph above, looked like this:


The promotion essentially took MLB Network off the expanded tier and put it on the basic one, rendering it accessible to over 90 million homes. The plan was not without some hiccups. Mediacom, which is the top cable provider in Iowa and second in Illinois — where a considerable amount of Cubs fans reside, of course — doesn’t have MLB Network on any tier. The two sides have not come to any agreement on who should be able to get MLB Network, and as a result, many Cubs fans, even with the free preview, could not watch the team’s Saturday game in their own home. That lack of coverage did not seem to hurt ratings.

That said, no cable program was watched more on Saturday than the Cubs-Giants game, which beat out college football games by drawing 4.6 million viewers. The Nationals-Dodgers game, airing Monday afternoon, drew a smaller 1.5 million fans, but was also competing with the Red Sox-Cleveland game that had been postponed Saturday.

Offering a free preview very well could have been received as an empty gesture by viewers. In theory, those previously without the channel might not have bothered to find it or even been aware of the preview. That doesn’t appear to be the case here, however. Increasing the subscriber base by one-third helped to increase television ratings by more than 50% relative to the MLB Network games from prior years. While the decision to broadcast games via MLB Network amounts mostly to an advertising decision that decreases access to games for many fans, the network does deserve credit for making the Division Series games available to a greater pool of fans by way of the free previews. Even if the move was the product of more business rationale than a holistic outreach — which is, unfortunately, probably unreasonable and unrealistic — the net effect helped many more fans see playoff baseball in 2016 compared to prior years.

Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.

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6 years ago

I have the MLB At Bat app. I watched games all season long. So, was I the only person blacked out from the free preview since I don’t have cable?

6 years ago
Reply to  comish4lif

MLB at bat / (and other league subscriptions) can really trick people. They are a liquidation outlet for undesirable content, marketed as the ultimate package. Most pro sports content is ranked with the #1 tier being live, nationally broadcast feature games (regular season / playoff) These Tier 1 exclusive rights are sold by the league for big money. Tier 2 is regular season local games in (your) local market. Exclusive rights sold by each team for serious money. MLB.TV is Tier 3 – everything else. Shit that no stations will pay much for – out of market local broadcasts. Its generally not going to contain anything that would have been in Tier 1 or 2, as those rights are exclusive.

6 years ago
Reply to  CJSportsNut

My beef with AtBat was always blackout issues. I paid for my local RSN (MASN) to watch Nats games. I also had a subscription to watch MLB games on my phone through AtBat. And yet I could not watch Nats games on my phone when I was away from home but still within the normal broadcast area.