This is not simply a Kevin Mather problem. Rather, this is symbolic of what ails baseball — the rancid byproduct of an ongoing leadership crisis that would allow a hateful, xenophobic, sexually harassing cheapass to ever become CEO of the Seattle Mariners.
Like a purpose pitch in the face, the sport cannot get out of its own way. Just when spring training was generating buzz after the $340 million signing of dazzling Fernando Tatis Jr., by a San Diego outlier that wants to compete for championships regardless of market size, here we have the usual hubris from the corporate ranks. If you’re a Mariners fan — and who would be, going on 20 seasons without a playoff appearance? — you’re apoplectic today that Mather could survive longstanding accusations of workplace harassment to reach a point where he’d disgrace himself during a Rotary Club breakfast speech and tender a forced resignation.
But frightful as it was to hear him ridicule the language struggles of two international players, what should concern the American sports kingdom was Mather’s naked, arrogant acknowledgment: He didn’t care if the Mariners were competitive, as long as he was protecting the team’s bottom line, manipulating the service time of prized prospects and showing no interest in appeasing the paying customers. In that context, he wasn’t outing only his franchise.
He was outing Major League Baseball, where I could argue that maybe 10 teams care about winning the World Series this year, leaving the other 20 to impugn competitive integrity and take advantage of fans who should view it as a consumer hint. You know, do something else with your lives than waste time, energy and money on tanking ballclubs during a pandemic.
Of course, Mather’s mindset reflects that of many MLB owners. With the collective bargaining agreement expiring at season’s end and a devastating work stoppage looming in 2022, why spend and try to win? We never figured the chief executive and president of a franchise would publicly admit as much. If ever a team needed to market young stars immediately, it’s the Mariners, who can’t keep dusting off ancient films of Ken Griffey Jr., Randy Johnson and a baby Alex Rodriguez. But instead of showcasing outfielder Jarred Kelenic and pitcher Logan Gilbert, Mather aimed to bilk them out of service time and make them wait an extra year for potential free-agency jackpots, the device used by too many teams to save millions by shipping them back to the minors.
“There was no chance you were going to see these young players at T-Mobile Park,” said Mather, preferring to trot out “my big tummy out there in left field” rather than invest early in the gifted Kelenic.
Worse, Mather seemed bitter when discussing Kelenic’s decision to reject a contract that kept him under club control an extra season, saying, “He’s a 21-year-old player who is quite confident. We offered him a long-term deal — a six-year deal for substantial money with options to go farther. After pondering it for several days and talking to the union, he has turned us down. And in his words, he’s going to bet on himself. He thinks after six years he’s going to be such a star player that the seventh-, eighth-, ninth-year options will be undervalued. He might be right. We offered, and he turned us down.”
What’s the point of disrespecting the life decision of a potential superstar? Especially when you’re running a team burdened by the longest postseason drought in North American sports? As offended as Kelenic was, Seattle fans were enraged — as Mather was praising a lesser prospect, first baseman Evan White, for accepting a $24 million guarantee and not asking the MLB Players Association for advice as Kelenic did. “I like Evan White,” Mather said. “He’s a nice young man.”
And Gilbert? “You won’t see him April 1,” Mather said on Feb. 5.
All of which led Mariners managing partner John Stanton to toss Mather into Puget Sound, a fate he should have faced years ago. “There is no excuse for what was said, and I won’t try to make one,” said Stanton, who becomes acting CEO. “I offer my sincere apology on behalf of the club and my partners to our players and fans. We must be, and do, better.”
Not a week earlier, MLB players were excited that Tatis, just 22, had signed a 14-year extension with the Padres. “I want the statue on one team. I want to be able to stay on one team and build my legacy in San Diego,” he said. Was there actually hope in the labor clouds? Please. Poison always seeps from the management suites, and that quickly, talk turned from the game’s abundance of magnetic young stars to a swindler in Seattle engaged in talent suppression. Is it any wonder Mike Trout, still the sport’s face as he nears 30, says he talks to union chief Tony Clark “probably once a day” about the impending doom?
“No idea,” Trout said when asked about a work stoppage. “I’m just learning new stuff about it, and when stuff comes up that (Clark) asks me, I answer it. Hopefully it gets resolved, and everything coming up, because Major League Baseball is a great thing for our country, especially now during the pandemic. And we need it to go forward.”
As a Trout admirer, I’d like to include the Angels among those trying to win it all. They aren’t — a waste of an all-time great who has experienced one playoff series in his 10 seasons. They are sandwiched between the majors’ best two teams, the Dodgers to the north and Padres to the south, and the winner of this fascinating SoCal scrum probably will face the Yankees in the World Series. The White Sox, after years of rebuilding, finally are contending in the American League, along with the Twins and Blue Jays. The Braves, Mets, Nationals and Cardinals are trying in the National League. I omitted the Rays, because the minute they yanked Blake Snell from Game 6 of the Series, then traded him to San Diego, they morphed from a miracle to a tanker. The Astros? Without a cheat code, they aren’t trying.
Ten teams. That’s it.
No Cubs. No Red Sox.
And a National League Central that looks like a Triple-A league.
The union is disgusted. Sure, it’s cool when Tatis and other stars get paid, but the next level of veterans again is being ignored on the market. As Mather put it, as the Bellevue breakfast crowd choked on its pancakes and bacon: “We have taken the position that there are 180 free agents still out there unsigned, and sooner or later, these players are going to turn their hat over and come with hat in hand, looking for a contract.”
Poor Seattle. This might be as painful as losing the Sonics.
Among the prominent names in labor negotiations will be Gerrit Cole. Yes, he of the nine-year, $324 million deal with the Yankees. When two-thirds of the franchises aren’t spending what they should — and projected team payrolls in Pittsburgh, Baltimore and Cleveland are less than Trevor Bauer’s $40 million salary with the Dodgers — the players are more concerned about a lopsided system of haves/have-nots than the fans.
“For me, it just goes back to competitiveness,” Cole said. “We have a lot of great veterans that offer great entertainment, a quality style of baseball, that continuously are being pushed out because surplus value on younger players is too high — the analytics are driving the game in that direction.
“When it comes down to it, if we have clubs that aren’t competing and they aren’t doing right by their fan base. Clubs that win multiple World Series and then just tear it all down, I worry about losing a generation of fans. I worry if we’re doing fans in those cities into disservice. I would like to see the middle of divisions, the middle of the league, incentivized to compete.”
If pitching for the Dodgers once felt like a curse, with the pressure to win a Series every year, Clayton Kershaw now cherishes his good fortune after finally claiming a ring. “The motivation is the fact the Dodgers are one of the few teams that are actually trying, you know?” he told the Los Angeles Times. “Like when you look around the league, we have a great opportunity to win another one. So there’s motivation in that, knowing that I’m very fortunate to be on a team that actually tries to win every single year is pretty cool. You see around the league, a lot of these … big-market teams are not trying to win and trading guys and doing different things and not spending money.”
Said Padres reliever Mark Melancon, who, years ago in Pittsburgh, played for a talented small-market team that didn’t keep its best talent: “It’s sad when there’s only 30 teams out there and you get a sense that a lot of them don’t want to win. So to see San Diego step up and be in a little bit of a smaller market and really go for it is fun and exciting. It’s a shame to see big-market teams kind of dump, you know?”
Cubs. Red Sox.
Sensing a theme?
“Being in this game, you know what (Mather) said is true to about 99.9 percent. It happens. It’s just not out there and it’s just not said,” said Cubs star Anthony Rizzo, who has watched teammate Kris Bryant subjected to the same service-time manuevering. “There’s stories written on it. There’s teams that manipulate service time. There’s teams that do it all the time. … I’m happy it’s out there in the public now and people are seeing that this is the way it is.”
Seattle isn’t a major market, but two decades without a taste of October is a travesty. Mariners ownership had no choice but to remove Mather or forget about ever signing a serious free agent. Imagine the CEO of a franchise long defined by Ichiro Suzuki, saying this about former Mariners pitcher and current special assignment coach Hisashi Iwakuma: “Wonderful human being — his English was terrible. He wanted to get back into the game, he came to us, we quite frankly want him as our Asian scout/interpreter, what’s going on with the Japanese league. He’s coming to spring training And I’m going to say, I’m tired of paying his interpreter. When he was a player, we’d pay Iwakuma `X,’ but we’d also have to pay $75,000 a year to have an interpreter with him. His English suddenly got better. His English got better when we told him that.”
And imagine what Latino players thought when Mather said this of another top prospect: “Julio Rodriguez has got a personality bigger than all of you combined. He is loud. His English is not tremendous. Everybody says he’ll be here in 2021. He won’t be here till 2022 or 2023.”
If ever a U.S. sport needed relegation, it’s baseball. Unlike the English Premier League, which demotes only the bottom three teams, MLB could relegate the Mariners, Pirates, Orioles, Rockies, Tigers, Rangers, Royals, Diamondbacks, Reds, Marlins, Giants, A’s, Brewers, Indians …
And Cubs. And Red Sox.
But, hey, have you heard? They’re deadening the baseballs! After six years of farcical home-run totals — coinciding with Rob Manfred’s reign as so-called commissioner — the overlords think fans suddenly want sacrifice bunts.
No. They want teams to invest their profits into the product.
And try to win instead of committing consumer fraud.
Jay Mariotti, called “the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter-century,’’ writes a weekly media column for Barrett Sports Media and regular sports columns for Substack while appearing on some of the 1,678,498 podcasts in production today. He’s an accomplished columnist, TV panelist and radio talk host. Living in Los Angeles, he gravitated by osmosis to film projects. Compensation for this column is donated to the Chicago Sun-Times Charity Trust.
The Future Is Now, Embrace Amazon Prime Video, AppleTV+
As annoying as streaming sports is and as much as I haven’t fully adapted to the habit yet, Amazon and Apple have done a magnificent job of trying to make the process as easy and simplified as possible.
This week has been a reckoning for sports and its streaming future on Amazon Prime Video, AppleTV+, ESPN+, and more.
Amazon announced that Thursday Night Football, which averaged 13 million viewers, generated the highest number of U.S. sign ups over a three hour period in the app’s history. More people in the United States subscribed to Prime during the September 15th broadcast than they did during Black Friday, Prime Day, and Cyber Monday. It was also “the most watched night of primetime in Prime Video’s history,” according to Amazon executive Jay Marine. The NFL and sports in general have the power to move mountains even for some of the nation’s biggest and most successful brands.
This leads us to the conversation happening surrounding Aaron Judge’s chase for history. Judge has been in pursuit of former major leaguer Roger Maris’ record for the most home runs hit during one season in American League history.
The sports world has turned its attention to the Yankees causing national rights holders such as ESPN, Fox, and TBS to pick up extra games in hopes that they capture the moment history is made. Apple TV+ also happened to have a Yankees game scheduled for Friday night against the Red Sox right in the middle of this chase for glory.
Baseball fans have been wildin’ out at the prospects of missing the grand moment when Judge passes Maris or even the moments afterwards as Judge chases home run number 70 and tries to truly create monumental history of his own. The New York Post’s Andrew Marchand has even reported there were talks between YES, MLB, and Apple to bring Michael Kay into Apple’s broadcast to call the game, allow YES Network to air its own production of the game, or allow YES Network to simulcast Apple TV+’s broadcast. In my opinion, all of this hysteria is extremely bogus.
As annoying as streaming sports is and as much as I haven’t fully adapted to the habit yet, Amazon and Apple have done a magnificent job of trying to make the process as easy and simplified as possible. Amazon brought in NBC to help with production of TNF and if you watch the flow of the broadcast, the graphics of the broadcast, NBC personalities like Michael Smith, Al Michaels, and Terry McAuliffe make appearances on the telecast – it is very clear that the network’s imprint is all over the show.
NBC’s experience in conducting the broadcast has made the viewing experience much more seamless. Apple has also used MLB Network and its personalities for assistance in ensuring there’s no major difference between what you see on air vs. what you’re streaming.
Amazon and Apple have also decided to not hide their games behind a paywall. Since the beginning of the season, all of Apple’s games have been available free of charge. No subscription has ever been required. As long as you have an Apple device and can download Apple TV+, you can watch their MLB package this season.
Guess what? Friday’s game against the Red Sox is also available for free on your iPhone, your laptop, or your TV simply by downloading the AppleTV app. Amazon will also simulcast all Thursday Night Football games on Twitch for free. It may be a little harder or confusing to find the free options, but they are out there and they are legal and, once again, they are free.
Apple has invested $85 million into baseball, money that will go towards your team becoming better hypothetically. They’ve invested money towards creating a new kind of streaming experience. Why in the hell would they offer YES Network this game for free? There’s no better way for them to drive subscriptions to their product than by offering fans a chance at watching history on their platform.
A moment like this are the main reason Apple paid for rights in the first place. When Apple sees what the NFL has done for Amazon in just one week and coincidentally has the ability to broadcast one of the biggest moments in baseball history – it would be a terrible business decision to let viewers watch it outside of the Apple ecosystem and lose the ability to gain new fans.
It’s time for sports fans to grow up and face reality. Streaming is here to stay.
MLB Network is another option
If you don’t feel like going through the hassle of watching the Yankees take on the Red Sox for free on Apple TV+, MLB Network will also air all of Judge’s at bats live as they are happening. In case the moment doesn’t happen on Apple TV+ on Friday night, Judge’s next games will air in full on MLB Network (Saturday), ESPN (Sunday), MLB Network again (Monday), TBS (Tuesday) and MLB Network for a third time on Wednesday. All of MLB Network’s games will be simulcast of YES Network’s local New York broadcast. It wouldn’t shock me to see Fox pick up another game next Thursday if the pursuit still maintains national interest.
- One of the weirdest things about the experience of streaming sports is that you lose the desire to channel surf. Is that a good thing or bad thing? Brandon Ross of LightShed Ventures wonders if the difficulty that comes with going from app to app will help Amazon keep viewers on TNF the entire time no matter what the score of the game is. If it does, Amazon needs to work on developing programming to surround the games or start replaying the games, pre and post shows so that when you fall asleep and wake up you’re still on the same stream on Prime Video or so that coming to Prime Video for sports becomes just as much of a habit for fans as tuning in to ESPN is.
- CNN has announced the launch of a new morning show with Don Lemon, Poppy Harlow and Kaitlin Collins. Variety reports, “Two people familiar with plans for the show say it is likely to use big Warner Bros. properties — a visit from the cast of HBO’s Succession or sports analysis from TNT’s NBA crew — to lure eyeballs.” It’ll be interesting to see if Turner Sports becomes a cornerstone of this broadcast. Will the NBA start doing schedule releases during the show? Will a big Taylor Rooks interview debut on this show before it appears on B/R? Will the Stanley Cup or Final Four MVP do an interview on CNN’s show the morning after winning the title? Does the show do remote broadcasts from Turner’s biggest sports events throughout the year?
- The Clippers are back on over the air television. They announced a deal with Nexstar to broadcast games on KTLA and other Nexstar owned affiliates in California. The team hasn’t reached a deal to air games on Bally Sports SoCal or Bally Sports Plus for the upcoming season. Could the Clippers pursue a solo route and start their own OTT service in time for the season? Are they talking to Apple, Amazon, or ESPN about a local streaming deal? Is Spectrum a possible destination? I think these are all possibilities but its likely that the Clippers end up back on Bally Sports since its the status quo. I just find it interesting that it has taken so long to solidify an agreement and that it wasn’t announced in conjunction with the KTLA deal. The Clippers are finally healthy this season, moving into a new arena soon, have the technology via Second Spectrum to produce immersive game casts. Maybe something is brewing?
- ESPN’s Monday Night Football double box was a great concept. The execution sucked. Kudos to ESPN for adjusting on the fly once complaints began to lodge across social media. I think the double box works as a separate feed. ESPN2 should’ve been the home to the double box. SVP and Stanford Steve could’ve held a watch party from ESPN’s DC studio with special guests. The double box watch party on ESPN2 could’ve been interrupted whenever SVP was giving an update on games for ESPN and ABC. It would give ESPN2 a bit of a behind the scenes look at how the magic happens similarly to what MLB Tonight did last week. Credit to ESPN and the NFL for experimenting and continuing to try and give fans unique experiences.
Jessie Karangu is a columnist for BSM and graduate of the University of Maryland with a bachelor’s degree in journalism. He was born and raised in Baltimore, Maryland but comes from Kenyan roots. Jessie has had a passion for sports media and the world of television since he was a child. His career has included stints with USA Today, Tegna, Sinclair Broadcast Group and Sightline Media. He can be found on Twitter @JMKTVShow.
ESPN Shows Foresight With Monday Night Football Doubleheader Timing
ESPN is obviously testing something, and it’s worth poking around at why the network wouldn’t follow the schedule it has used for the last 16 years, scheduling kickoffs at 7 and then 10 on their primary channel.
The Monday Night Football doubleheader was a little bit different this time around for ESPN.
First, it came in Week 2 instead of Week 1. And then, the games were staggered 75 minutes apart on two different channels, the Titans and Bills beginning on ESPN at 7:15 PM ET and the Vikings at the Eagles starting at 8:30 PM on ABC and ESPN+. This was a departure from the usual schedule in which the games kicked off at 7:00 PM ET and then 10:00 PM ET with the latter game on the West Coast.
ESPN is obviously testing something, and it’s worth poking around at why the network wouldn’t follow the schedule it has used for the last 16 years, scheduling kickoffs at 7:00 PM and then 10:00 PM ET on their primary channel. That’s the typical approach, right? The NFL is the most valuable offering in all of sports and ESPN would have at least six consecutive hours of live programming without any other game to switch to.
Instead, they staggered the starts so the second game kicked off just before the first game reached halftime. They placed the games on two different channels, which risked cannibalizing their audience. Why? Well, it’s the same reason that ESPN was so excited about the last year’s Manningcast that it’s bringing it back for 10 weeks this season. ESPN is not just recognizing the reality of how their customers behave, but they’re embracing it.
Instead of hoping with everything they have that the customer stays in one place for the duration of the game, they’re recognizing the reality that they will leave and providing another product within their portfolio to be a destination when they do.
It’s the kind of experiment everyone in broadcasting should be investigating because, for all the talk about meeting the customer where they are, we still tend to be a little bit stubborn about adapting to what they do.
Customers have more choices than ever when it comes to media consumption. First, cable networks softened the distribution advantages of broadcast networks, and now digital offerings have eroded the distribution advantages of cable networks. It’s not quite a free-for-all, but the battle for viewership is more intense, more wide open than ever because that viewer has so many options of not just when and where but how they will consume media.
Programmers have a choice in how to react to this. On the one hand, they can hold on tighter to the existing model and try to squeeze as much out of it as they can. If ESPN was thinking this way it would stack those two Monday night games one after the other just like it always has and hope like hell for a couple of close games to juice the ratings. Why would you make it impossible for your customer to watch both of these products you’ve paid so much to televise?
I’ve heard radio programmers and hosts recite take this same approach for more than 10 years now when it comes to making shows available on-demand. Why would you give your customers the option of consuming the product in a way that’s not as remunerative or in a way that is not measured?
That thinking is outdated and it is dangerous from an economic perspective because it means you’re trying to make the customer behave in your best interest by restricting their choices. And maybe that will work. Maybe they like that program enough that they’ll consume it in the way you’d prefer or maybe they decide that’s inconvenient or annoying or they decide to try something else and now this customer who would have listened to your product in an on-demand format is choosing to listen to someone else’s product entirely.
After all, you’re the only one that is restricting that customer’s choices because you’re the only one with a desire to keep your customer where he is. Everyone else is more than happy to give your customer something else.
There’s a danger in holding on too tightly to the existing model because the tighter you squeeze, the more customers will slip through your fingers, and if you need a physical demonstration to complete this metaphor go grab a handful of sand and squeeze it hard.
Your business model is only as good as its ability to predict the behavior of your customers, and as soon as it stops doing that, you need to adjust that business model. Don’t just recognize the reality that customers today will exercise the freedom that all these media choices provide, embrace it.
Offer more products. Experiment with more ways to deliver those products. The more you attempt to dictate the terms of your customer’s engagement with your product, the more customers you’ll lose, and by accepting this you’ll open yourself to the reality that if your customer is going to leave your main offering, it’s better to have them hopping to another one of your products as opposed to leaving your network entirely.
Think in terms of depth of engagement, and breadth of experience. That’s clearly what ESPN is doing because conventional thinking would see the Manningcast as a program that competes with the main Monday Night Football broadcast, that cannibalizes it. ESPN sees it as a complimentary experience. An addition to the main broadcast, but it also has the benefit that if the customer feels compelled to jump away from the main broadcast – for whatever reason – it has another ESPN offering that they may land on.
I’ll be watching to see what ESPN decides going forward. The network will have three Monday Night Football doubleheaders beginning next year, and the game times have not been set. Will they line them up back-to-back as they had up until this year? If they do it will be a vote of confidence that its traditional programming approach that evening is still viable. But if they overlap those games going forward, it’s another sign that less is not more when it comes to giving your customers a choice in products.
Danny O’Neil is a sports media columnist for BSM. He has previously hosted morning and afternoon drive for 710 ESPN Seattle, and served as a reporter for the Seattle Times. He can be reached on Twitter @DannyOneil or by email at Danny@DannyOneil.com.
Media Noise: Sunday Ticket Has Problems, Marcellus Wiley Does Not
On this episode of Media Noise, Demetri is joined by Brian Noe to talk about the wild year FS1’s Marcellus Wiley has had and by Garrett Searight to discuss the tumultuous present and bright future of NFL Sunday Ticket.
Demetri Ravanos is the Assistant Content Director for Barrett Sports Media. He hosts the Chewing Clock and Media Noise podcasts. He occasionally fills in on stations across the Carolinas. Previous stops include WAVH and WZEW in Mobile, AL, WBPT in Birmingham, AL and WBBB, WPTK and WDNC in Raleigh, NC. You can find him on Twitter @DemetriRavanos and reach him by email at DemetriTheGreek@gmail.com.