Saturday, March 26, 2011

No one, Royal's announcer says, watches baseball these days -- why?

Baseball revenues are growing but no one watched the World Series.


That's the question Ryan Lefebvre raised today as he broadcast a spring training game from Arizona. If baseball is so popular, why were the numbers for the last World Series so low, especially when compared to the Super Bowl? Lefebvre actually used the phrase "no one watched" but it was understood he meant not as many watched baseball as watched football.

He was involved in a long, long conversation with Denny Matthews about changes in the game that might make it more popular to watch. When I say long, I mean long. I drove halfway to the grocery store and didn't hear a pitch called. I could tell something was happening on the field from ambient noise but I didn't know what.

Of course, it was a spring training game and why on earth they were broadcasting a spring training game escapes me ... and probably escapes them. (Or, why I was listening...) And to compare the World Series to the Super Bowl makes about as much sense. If the World Series were one game and the whole season of baseball consisted of about a dozen games, the audience for the World Series would be huge. Of course, then it wouldn't be a "series." It would be the World Bowl, or something like.

It might be unfair, but maybe the first place to look for the answer to this question is in the broadcast booth. Maybe people have tired to the current schematic for broadcasting baseball.

Let's start with announcers. Maybe people have tired of listening to announcers prattle on about questions like why more people don't watch baseball, this at the expense of calling the game in front of them. The broadcasts these days, like many other areas of modern life, are more about the announcers than the games. Baseball broadcasters are learning this from basketball broadcasters who learned it from football broadcasters, who learned it from television news anchors and reporters who learned it from MTV. In an effort to shine a light on their own personalities, they provide little in terms of detail or information about what is happening on the field. They need to sit down in front of a second grade class and read a bunch of children's books to the kids and learn what storytelling is and how it works. They need to respect the listener's time. They need to let go when their personal stories and overwrought ribbing of each other threatens to span innings, when their inside jokes get old, and when their cheerleading for management and the organization gets tiresome.

When in doubt, tell us about the weather.

And, for the love of god, lose the damned nicknames.

We get it. You're buddies with the players. You spend time in the locker room. You're part of the team. We get it, so let it go, please. It does get old.

By the way, none of this seems to apply to Denny Matthews. I hadn't expected to write that, but it's true.

So, broadcasters might be part of the problem with broadcasting. I'm thinking the lockstep schematic of televising games might also be part of the problem. The formula is just too predictable to be interesting. Every pitch includes about seven to nine cuts and most of the time they come from the same angles and in the same order. It's enough to put a restless seven year old to sleep before his bedtime.

Suggestions: Stay on one thing long enough for the viewer to understand what's going on. Every pitch can't be cut like a music video. Watching a game would -- and is -- like watching 250 music videos in a row. And, change the camera angles. Station a camera inside the dugout for a few innings and weave in shots of the players on the bench or at the bat rack or watching video in the locker room or hitting off a tee in the tunnel. Move a camera to the stands for an inning. Mount a camera near the roof for a straight down shot. Show us what the game looks like from the bullpen. Just changing the position of the cameras would wake up a broadcast and put some unpredictability back into watching.

It wouldn't hurt to make decisions in the truck based on what's critical in the game at that moment. It might actually add narrative and drama. In fact, it might be good to develop a narrative across the span of nine innings and find ways to photograph that narrative as it evolves.

Also change the play-by-play / color man dynamic. It's old and it's boring. I like announcers like Frank White who can explain what's happening. That makes a difference. Maybe a little more silence would be good when there's nothing to say. Let us hear some of the ambient sounds in the stands once in a while.

The biggest change in the game today is our new understanding of the numbers. Announcers and producers need to spend a little time learning about this side of the game then devise ways to bring these ideas and these numbers to viewers. I saw a presentation at the I-70baseball writers' conference recently of graphs based on the new math of baseball. They were compelling. A clever announcer and an agile production crew could certainly develop such a thing into a powerful illustration of the drama on the field.

I'm sure there are some things about the game that would help. If you want to think radically, why not borrow the one-one count from slow pitch softball? That would speed up the game. Or the one-pitch rules sometimes employed in crazy slow pitch tournaments? Or pinch runners from home plate? Or make balks part of a pitcher's arsenal? Or allow foreign substances on the ball? Or legalize steroids? Or lower the mound and bring in the fences? Wait, they already did that.

Don't get yer panties in a wad. I'm only joking. How do I know that somewhere out there a baseball executive is saying to himself, "Yes, why not?" Shudder...

But if the problem is that the game is growing in popularity but fewer people are watching broadcasts, then it just seems logical for broadcasters to look first for the answers in the booth and the truck, and leave the damned game alone.


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