MLB Network is facing many challenges in its rookie season but already is showing signs of being an all-star for years to come.
By Barry Janoff, Executive Editor, NYSportsJournalism.com
(Posted April 7, 2009)
MLB Network is the youngest among national TV operations launched by the NBA, NFL and NHL. But it may be the one that brings the most history to the table. On its debut night, Jan. 1, 2009, MLB Network presented in its entirety for the first time since it happened Don Larsen's perfect game for the New York Yankees against the Brooklyn Dodgers in Game 5 of the 1956 World Series. In addition, one of baseball's best TV sports reporters, Bob Costas, was in the studio with Larsen and his Yankees catcher, Yogi Berra, to talk about the game. Costas has since joined MLB Network full time as part of a roster that runs the gamut from Thursday Night Baseball and MLB Tonight to Ken Burn's Baseball. MLB Network is two-thirds owned by Major League Baseball and a third owned by cable operators Comcast, Time Warner, Cox and satellite DirecTV, which make it available in about 50 million homes. Advertisers have included Sprint, IBM, Kraft, Geico, Progressive, Sony PlayStation and Viagra, A new marketing campaign, "All the rituals," from lead agency McCann Erickson, New York, shows current and all-time greats including Ichiro Suzuki, Derek Jeter, Willie Mays and Jackie Robinson in action as text offers, "All the rituals. All the passion. All the sacrifice. All the hope. All the streaks. All the history. All the time." A voiceover relates, "Everything you love about baseball is on MLB Network. Our national pastime all the time." Mary Beck was part of MLB's marketing team from 2001 until she joined MLB Network in July 2008 as svp-marketing and promotion. She spoke with NYSportsJournalism.com about the fledging network's efforts to score with fans and marketing partners.
NYSportsJournalism.com: How interesting have the first on-air months been since MLB Network launched on Jan. 1?
Mary Beck: We debuted with [the complete showing of Don Larsen's perfect game from the 1956 World Series, we had World Baseball Classic games, we did "30 Clubs in 30 Days" as a Spring Training Preview, we've unveiled our new studios and we have so much talent both on-air and behind the scenes, so to say it has been very interesting would even be an understatement.
NYSJ: Did the World Baseball Classic create even more anticipation for the 2009 MLB season?
Beck: From the brand perspective, we never thought of it as, let's cover the WBC and then let's cover the real thing. The WBC had great moments, with the Dominican Republic being upset by the Netherlands, the U.S. team going to the semi-finals, Japan and Ichiro and Daisuke Matsuzaka having a great series. So it did build anticipation for the [MLB] season but it really held up as great baseball on its own and showed how strong the game is in Europe and around the world, and why it should be [reinstated] an Olympic sport.
NYSJ: What were some of the challenges in launching MLB Network?
Beck: Going into it, we did a lot of market research from the league side with our fans and focus groups. Part of the challenge for us was confusion that the MLB Network already existed. People were getting it confused with MLB.TV online, the great product that MLB.com has out; and also with "Extra Innings," our out-of-market package on DirecTV. We would ask in focus groups, for example, "Did you know that MLB is going to launch a 24-hour network?" And they would say, "Oh, that's where we can watch all the games." And we'd have to say, "Actually, it doesn't exist yet." We've been tracking that since last year, and we're tracking it [in conjunction with] our new campaign to see how that awareness is changing. We also want to see how aware fans are becoming of the programming that we offer and the on-air talent we have.
"We said that one of the things that will set us apart is not just our access to MLB, but that we would be a voice for the league but not necessarily a mouthpiece."
NYSJ: Was it important for MLB Network to not come across as a PR division of MLB, and that you would cover controversial topics, such as when the issues surrounding Alex Rodriguez were making headlines?
Beck: We have said from the outset that one of the things that will set us apart is not just our access to the MLB production library and to the league, but that we would be a voice for the league but not necessarily a mouthpiece. Having Joe Torre on to talk about his book [The Yankee Years] and having Selena Roberts [who authored the Sports Illustrated stories about Rodriguez and his testing positive for steroids] really helped us from a credibility standpoint. I feel that was what was intended by the commissioner [Bud Selig] and the league in setting up the network. That we would have another credible voice that would cover baseball inside and out. Having people like Bob Costas, Harold Reynolds, Jon Heyman, Barry Larkin and Al Leiter complements that.
NYSJ: As far as marketing, are the league partners required to have a marketing, presence?
Beck: Our ad sales group, headed by Bill Morningstar, has met with all of the league marketing partners and has offered them suggestions, opportunities and solutions with the Network, all with the premise that there is not a hard-and-fast commitment from them that they have to support MLB Network. However, we do anticipate that they all with be involved with us when they each find the proper venue. Our ad sales team went to the league marketing partners first and offered them opportunities, but the categories are open so that we can take ad money that is not Anheuser-Busch or car money that is not General Motors.
NYSJ: How important is the new ad campaign in reaching not just core baseball fans but also people who might be casual fans?
Beck: We are a new brand and we don't have a lot of dollars to spend on marketing. So we started with our asset media, which is MLB-owned media, in September and then in October with the World Series, which is where we were able to get our slogan out to the public, "Our national pastime goes full time." We created spots for that and, again, not really putting a lot of money behind it because at that point the product would not be available for two or three months. Then working with McCann, we wanted to make a bigger splash with the new campaign that tweaked the slogan to, "Our national pastime all the time." That's when we upped the spending to get the word out and make people aware before opening day. March was also when we had some of our best programming [to date], with more than 50 Spring Training games, 16 World Baseball Classic games and "World Baseball Classic Tonight," "MLB Tonight" and "30 Clubs in 30 Days." Our message is that if you love baseball there is no reason to turn off MLB Network.