MLB Network Preps for Rollout in 50 Million Homes

Despite Major League Competition and Tough Economy, Net Positions Itself as 'Resource'

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- In these challenging economic times -- during which every story and press release commences with an "in these challenging economic times ..." salvo -- media entities are as likely to roll out a big-dollar, big-ambition offering as they are to quadruple their head count. And then there's Major League Baseball, which will come across as positively brazen when it launches its eponymous cable network in upward of 50 million homes Jan. 1.

The MLB Network has constructed two mammoth sets, one of which features a padded outfield wall and a monstrous out-of-town scoreboard.
The MLB Network has constructed two mammoth sets, one of which features a padded outfield wall and a monstrous out-of-town scoreboard.
Those 50 million homes make the MLB Network the biggest debut in the history of cable. Talking to Ad Age a couple of weeks before its official unveiling, network President-CEO Tony Petitti mercifully refrains from peddling blind optimism about the new venture.

"Things are challenging out there. We all read the papers," he said. "That said, we're confident in our people and our programming, and we're confident the audience will be there."

Nirvana for diehards
On paper, the MLB Network looks like nirvana for hard-core fans. The net's flagship show, "MLB Tonight," will air every day except Sunday during the regular season from 6 p.m. Eastern time until a half hour after the evening's final game has concluded. It will broadcast a game every Thursday night and cover any number of events in and around the game. Additionally, the network will tap the league's trove of historical footage for documentaries and series such as "Prime 9," a countdown show devoted to the game's best moments and performers (center fielders, dramatic home runs, etc.).

Based in Secaucus, N.J., the MLB Network has rewired its facility to facilitate high-def broadcasts and constructed two mammoth sets, one of which features a padded outfield wall and a monstrous out-of-town scoreboard. Translation: There will be plenty of room for the net's on-air talent, which includes ex-Major Leaguers Al Leiter, Joe Magrane, Dan Plesac and Harold Reynolds, to play.

Mr. Petitti and Co. realize the network won't just be competing with the gazillions of other entertainment options, but with local baseball broadcasts and coverage as well. To that end, the MLB Network plans to go the big-picture route with its coverage. "We're going to complement the way you already watch baseball," he promised. "You can watch your local team and then come to us for the rest -- the [nightly in-game] look-ins, our live games, World Baseball Classic games. We'll be a resource."

Media community thumbs up
This, said Initiative senior VP-director, national broadcast, Kevin Collins, should prove a wise decision. "That was the first thing I asked: 'Why, as a Mets fan, should I go to you if I have SNY [which carries most Met games live]?' They told me how they're going to put it all kind of in context. If they get that right, that'll be huge."

So far, the media community likes what it's hearing. The 50 million homes has a bit to do with it, of course, but execs such as Mr. Collins applaud the way the network has engaged marketers and media folks.

"When the NFL Network came on, they pissed off everyone. They were maybe a little arrogant," Mr. Collins explains. "MLB hired [former WB network exec] Bill Morningstar to handle sales and he's one of the best and smartest guys around. We're having good conversations and they've been great about working with us."

Economy poses challenge
If there are concerns, they mostly have to do with -- duh -- the overall economic picture. "Any ad-based operation in 2009 is going to face a challenge," notes Bill Carroll, VP-director of programming at Katz Television Group. Added Mr. Collins: "I don't know if they have a lot of [ad/marketing] deals done yet. Clearly they've got to be friendly with rates." Potential cutbacks by auto marketers loom especially large, given their support of all things baseball in the past.

Mr. Petitti declines to discuss ad or marketing challenges or potential tie-ins in detail, citing continuing negotiations. He notes, however, the network's huge inventory of live studio programming -- around 1,400 hours of it in 2009. "Studio programming lends itself to great partnerships with advertisers. They'll have a great chance to feel like they're a big part of things," he says.

Meanwhile, the MLB Network may be able to cushion any possible economy-related blows by tapping the league's wealth of existing relationships with marketers.

"I have to believe they'll try to exploit that," Mr. Carroll says. "What I'm sure they realize is that it's not about whether 2009 is a good year or a bad year. For them, it's about the future. If they become a go-to for the baseball fanatic, the future is good no matter what."

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