The history of Baseball Broadcasting: The Impact of Cable TV

This is the third in a four part series about the history of baseball broadcasting. Part four will be published next week, and will focus on modern day broadcasts. Part one can be found here, and part two can be found here.

There have been many innovations in baseball broadcasting, but arguably the biggest one was WTBS TV in Atlanta, which, in the 1970’s, became the first superstation to air all of a single team’s games nationally. The reason this happened is because the Braves and the TV station were both owned by Ted Turner. Turner began syndicating broadcasts in 1973, but the major breakthrough came in 1977 when he used the Satcom 1 satellite to distribute Braves games nationally, a practice that TBS would continue to do until 2007, when they agreed to a new rights deal with MLB that gave them a Sunday afternoon national broadcast.

Once TBS was established as a success, other teams began experimenting with national broadcasts outside of the Game Of The Week format previously used. In 1980, 22 teams reached a deal with UA-Columbia for a one-year deal that gave the network a Thursday night Game of the Week in markets that did not have a MLB team within 50 miles. The deal was a bust, as MLB received less than $500,000 from the deal, but it did lead to a new two-year deal that gave the network 40-45 games a season.

This deal went on until 1989, when ESPN signed a deal with MLB that allowed the relatively new network to air 145 games a season. Games were broadcast on Sunday, Wednesday, and a doubleheader every Tuesday and Friday, as well as occasional games on holidays. The deal was a success for MLB, as they received $400 million from the deal.

ESPN debuted their Sunday night Baseball series on April 15, 1990, with Jon Miller and Joe Morgan on the call, a duo that would remain on the call well into the next century. Sunday Night Baseball averaged a 3.0 rating, which seems small, but was almost double what the network was averaging for non-MLB programming. The early package for Sunday Night Baseball called for every ballpark to get a game, along with guaranteeing every team at least one appearance throughout the season, similar to a cross-country tour.

ESPN extended the contract in 1994 to cover the rest of the decade, but the deal was voided after the 1995 season, and ESPN restructured the whole deal. The new deal gave ESPN a doubleheader on Wednesday, a game on Sunday night, and all playoff games not aired on FOX or NBC. This deal carried on in some capacity through the 2005 season, at which time ESPN announced a new deal that kept the Sunday night broadcasts, along with daily baseball programming, the Home Run Derby, and rights to archival footage along with instant classic rights for games broadcast on ESPN.

TBS re-entered the picture in 2007, when they reached a new deal with Major League Baseball that gave them a Sunday afternoon national game of the week, along with rights to the Division series in both leagues, along with any regular season tiebreakers. As part of this deal, TBS stopped airing national broadcasts of Braves games, although the local TBS stations in the Braves six-state area could still air the games on a local broadcast.

In 2012, it was announced that Fox and Turner Sports (The owner of TBS) had each reached a new deal with Major League Baseball. These new deals run through the 2021 season. The terms of the deals don’t change much from the previous ones, except that the two networks split the broadcasts of the Division series games. The deal also gave FOX the rights to air Saturday afternoon games on the new FS1 channel, which launched in August of 2013. The deal also allowed Fox to sell Division Series broadcasts to MLB Network.

Leave a Reply