If the nation's economic doldrums are going to slow down the national pastime, there's not much evidence of it happening yet. This past season, baseball blasted a home run, scoring a record $6.5 billion in revenues. During the winter off-season, trade rumors and expensive free-agent signings have kept fans hooked. Struggling media outlets still saw fit to send some 370 journalists to Las Vegas to cover the sport's winter meetings, an annual hardball cattle call packed with rumor-hungry execs, scouts and assorted hangers-on, all looking for the next big deal.
In fact, Major League Baseball is so confident of its staying power that it is launching its own 24/7 cable channel in the midst of the country's worst recession since the Great Depression. On Jan. 1, the league, looking to tap into fans' endless demand for stats, scores and late-breaking news on a middle reliever's rotator cuff, will debut the MLB Network, a channel that promises to cover every crack of the bat, in or out of season. (Read TIME's top 10 sports moments of 2008.)
But is there really demand for that much baseball, especially at a time of year when most sports nuts are focused on college bowl games and the NFL playoffs? The nation's cable and satellite providers think so: the MLB Network will debut in over 50 million homes the U.S. has around 115 million television households making it the largest pay-TV launch in history. "This is the next step in the evolution of delivering baseball to our fans," says Bob DuPuy, Major League Baseball's president and chief operating officer.
Baseball, of course, doesn't amount to much in the dead of winter, so the network's New Year's Day debut will consist of an hour-long studio show at 6 p.m., followed by the original telecast of Don Larsen's perfect game in the 1956 World Series. Before the season starts, the MLB Network will primarily feature sports news, original documentaries and spring-training reports for every team. The channel will broadcast World Baseball Classic games in March and 26 regular-season games during the year. The network's signature show is slated to be MLB Tonight, an eight-hour nighttime highlights program featuring updates and occasional live coverage of ongoing games. Think of ESPN's popular highlight program Baseball Tonight on, er, steroids.
Popular exESPN commentator Harold Reynolds and former Mets pitcher Al Leiter will man the studio, provide analysis and serve as the faces of the channel. The network was planning to eventually move into a shiny new office tower in New York City's Harlem neighborhood, but construction never started because of the credit markets' collapse. Instead, the baseball channel will operate out of MSNBC's old studio in Secaucus, N.J., which was supposed to be a temporary home until the Harlem building was finished. The space features a 9,600-sq.-ft. replica baseball field, replete with dugouts, outfield seats and a 25-ft. scoreboard modeled after the one at Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia. On this set called Studio 42, after Jackie Robinson's uniform number analysts will provide on-air instruction about the subtleties of the game. "We have a lot of toys in here," says Tony Petitti, the former No. 2 at CBS Sports who was tapped in April to run the network. (See pictures from the last night at Yankee Stadium.)
An eye-catching set is nice. But in an advertising market that's softer than a knuckleball, baseball realizes it's a horrible time to be launching any kind of business. "This economy is not good for anybody; it would be silly to say anything else," says Tim Brosnan, MLB's executive vice president in charge of business.
However, the MLB Network's 50 million homes give it unprecedented scale. The other league-owned and -operated sports channels still haven't hit baseball's numbers, and they've been around a lot longer. NBA TV, launched in 1999 but still relegated to the more expensive tier of sports cable channels, has only 15 million subscribers. The five-year-old NFL Network, which has waged mortal combat against cable operators for more favorable distribution terms, reaches just 42 million homes. The subscription revenues from the cable and satellite operators could keep the MLB Network buoyant in a tough advertising market. In fact, most analysts are bullish about the channel. "We expect them to be profitable from day one," says Derek Baine, a senior analyst at SNL Kagan, a cable-television-research firm.