Baseball needs to catch cord-nevers

OTAOTT
Girl in baseball cap watching old TV next to stuffed animal
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The opening week of the major league baseball season is here at last. Not so coincidentally, Adweek ran an interview with MLB commissioner Rob Manfred addressing the sport’s fading appeal to young viewers. “MLB has the oldest median TV audience at 56 years, compared to 49 for NFL viewers and 41 for NBA fans,” Adweek’s Tim Baysinger wrote.

Let’s blend in another report. Mike Farrell wrote in Multichannel News that “Canadian research company Convergence Consulting Group estimated that 1.13 million U.S. TV households cut the cord in 2015, about four times the pace of 2014.” That annual report also said that the pay TV universe is contracting, but the group of cord-cutters and cord-nevers (who have never paid for TV) will grow by over 2 million households in 2016.

Now MLB has one great advantage – its comprehensive streaming package, MLB.TV, available to almost anyone at a reasonable price. Its trouble, which I don’t see it addressing, is that it markets itself only to serious fans. That is, if you’re not already a baseball fan, you won’t get much opportunity to get hooked on the sport.

Update: Yet another way MLB is reaching out is with a free daily game streaming on Yahoo Sports. That’s a nice gesture to cord-cutters, but again it requires a preexisting desire to watch baseball games.

I thought of all this as I surveyed the upcoming sports broadcasts as shown by my Tablo. Looking out over the next couple of weeks of over-the-air TV, there will be NBA games, NHL games, golf, auto racing, four soccer leagues, and even a Legends Football League game. But no baseball whatsoever for its opening weeks. Is it any wonder that cord-nevers embrace other sports?

My solution to this problem is to go back to what made those 56-year-olds MLB fans in the first place. Require each team to simulcast six games a month over the air. That roughly matches what a lot of teams did 40 or 50 years ago, showing a few road trips a month on local independent stations.

All of those games are already being covered by local pay-TV networks, so the only new cost is the loss of exclusivity for those 36 out of 155 or so non-national games. But those free broadcasts become a great selling tool for the teams where they can promote upcoming home games, sell more MLB.TV subscriptions, and generally get viewers to fall in love with the local players. Kids in broadcast-only homes will find these games and might start watching baseball when the NBA season is over.

If you want folks to buy your product, you’ve got to give them a taste of it. If MLB wants to get serious about attracting new fans, it’s going to have to get back to its old model of giving a taste away for free.

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