If the comparison points are market size, finances, pedigree, ballpark charm and American magnetism, heh, this World Series would end in three games. The Los Angeles Dodgers are a cultural machine, a force in sports and life, the franchise of Jackie Robinson and Kirk Gibson’s home run and legends from sea to sea, cradled by a timeless stadium dug from a canyon off Sunset Boulevard and Vin Scully Avenue that overlooks hills, palm trees and the southern California dream.
The Tampa Bay Rays? They are baseball orphans, stuck with the worst ballpark, lowest payroll, weakest attendance and flimsiest existence of any contending sports team in the 21st century. With local politics quashing a new home, the Rays were desperate enough to consider a split season in Montreal, except Canada can’t even have them now due to COVID-19. And while there’s no shortage of celebrities rooting for the Dodgers in their homes — Kim and Kanye, McConaughey, Snoop, J.Lo — the Rays have one lonely but robust voice echoing across Florida’s west coast.
“Awesome, baby!” bellows their superfan, Dick Vitale.
Yet the mammoth disparities in status, lineage and sparkle are exactly what makes this Series watchable. Unlike the Rays, who already have won just by getting here, the Hollywood Dodgers can’t lose now, certainly not to these humble dishrags from St. Petersburg, not when they’ve botched so many October chances that Clayton Kershaw — and his heavy-rotation tire commercials — are cringeworthy in L.A. Up there atop the ravine, which somehow looks down upon the skyline as if you’re in Dodger Blue heaven, a toy owned by a cold, faceless investment firm called Guggenheim Partners still managed a prorated team payroll of almost $100 million for a 60-game shotgun season. The Rays came in at — ready? — a mere $29.3 million, trailing only Pittsburgh and Baltimore in the race to spend the least.
Which might explain why manager Dave Roberts, so often blamed (and deservedly so) for postseason strategic blunders, was prematurely giddy after Cody Bellinger won the National League pennant with a home run still flying past tumbleweeds in Amarillo. It certainly feels like circumstances are lining up for the Dodgers to win their first Fall Classic since GIbson’s gimpy blast in 1988. Waving a finger for emphasis, Roberts stood on the field and told a scant crowd inside Major League Baseball’s Texas Bubble, “I don’t want to get too emotional, but I’m just so proud of these guys. It’s been a crazy year — guys away from their families, social injustices — (but) our fans stuck together and these guys all stuck together. We have a lot of work to do, but … “
And then, as fans gasped from Thousand Oaks to Rancho Cucamonga, Boyle Heights to the beach, Roberts went THERE — to a dangerous place he never should go, a place that will devour him if he’s wrong.
“This is our year! This is our year!” he shouted, louder than Dickie V, a few feet from where his boss, Andrew Friedman, was applauding furiously.
Well, guess what? This might not be their year, either. Despite built-in advantages that border on obscene, the Dodgers are capable of another crash, especially if Kershaw again forgets he’s the pitching G.O.A.T. of his generation and keeps performing like an actual goat, as in farm animal. For sure, the series won’t be a sweep as much as a potential seven-gamer that will please MLB and Fox, even if America is too brainwashed by pre-election madness to partake in even decent numbers. I’m picking L.A. in seven, but not without trepidation. With history as a witness, stuff happens to the Dodgers every October that reduces them from favorites to farces. Witness the dugout celebration after Bellinger’s spectacular blast, when he traded forearm bashes with Kike Hernandez and dislocated his right shoulder. “I hit Kike’s shoulder a little too hard and my shoulder popped out,” he said. “They had to pop it back in so I could play defense. It kinda hurt. I’m going to maybe use my left arm (in the future). I’ve never dislocated that one.”
Funny, but the Rays don’t dabble in slapstick. They are too focused, too professional. For the uninitiated, they will keep the series close because they are an ongoing scientific miracle, prioritizing math mastery, high character and maximum efficiency when relatively paltry revenues give them little choice. The story line that hovers over the Series, of course, is Friedman. He started the Tampa Bay minimalist experiment 14 years ago, joining the Rays as a 28-year-old general manager after leaving Wall Street. Two years later, he was in the World Series, where the Rays lost to the Phillies, and by 2015, he was leaving the small-budget scrappers for the unlimited resources of Dodger Stadium. He already has his own industry tree of data-first geeks — including Erik Neander, his former intern and now the Rays’ baseball operations boss. Meaning, the pressure on Friedman is even more intense than usual. Imagine if he loses to his former team when he has almost four times the payroll?
“Obviously, I have close personal relationships there, some of my closest friends,” he said. “But my focus is what we’re doing here. We’re focused on four more wins.”
The Guggenheim money men didn’t blink upon acquiring Mookie Betts and showering him with a 12-year, $360 million extension — an addendum to a gold mine of homegrown talent including Bellinger, October storm Corey Seager, rotation ace Walker Buehler and emerging bullpen weapon Julio Urias. The Rays, meanwhile, are symbolized by wanky castoffs who happen to fit a data-and-brainpower system that must involve artificial intelligence on some level, in that this organization hatched revolutionary ideas such as the single-inning pitching opener, bullpenning and an all-lefty lineup. America simply doesn’t know much about them, even if Blake Snell won the Cy Young Award, centerfielder Kevin Kiermaier is an consistent acrobatic presence on “Web Gems,” and Charlie Morton is the most reliable starting pitcher in the ballpark.
“If they don’t know the names by now, they’d better learn,” Kiermaier said of the American people. “Because we’ve got some boys who can play.”
One such find: Randy Arozarena, cut loose by the Cardinals only to morph into Mr. October, hitting .382 with seven homers and 10 RBI. If he keeps slamming bombs and clutch hits for a team built on a sturdy rotation and a fireballing bullpen, they should change the name of dismal Tropicana Field to The Arozarena. Not that he’s taking himself too seriously, like the rest of the Rays. This is a man who escaped Cuba on a raft at 19, knowing his family needed money after his father’s death. “You honestly just have to risk your life for your family,” Arozarena told MLB.com. “When you’re in the ocean, the only thing you’re thinking about and hoping for is that you get there safely. There’s been people that are out in the ocean for days and months, and there are others that don’t make it because they die. But when you’re in one of those fake boats in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico, the only thing you do is hope that you survive. I took the chance and, thankfully, I got here without any problems.”
Similarly, you won’t see manager Kevin Cash making any Roberts-like proclamations. How can he? “We’re not a team built with superstar after superstar,” he said. “We’re a team that maximizes opportunities and tries to get matchups to help us win games. And we did that really, really well this year.” What you will see is Cash inevitably make the correct pitching move, an element that should terrify Dodgers fans still leery of Roberts and his decisions, such as his befuddling loyalty to Kershaw in tight moments. In Game 7 of the American League championship series, Morton was sailing with a two-hit shutout, having thrown only 66 pitches against the flailing Astros. Admittedly relying on textbook algorithms, not human instinct, Cash pulled Morton for reliever Nick Anderson. Morton wasn’t happy, nor was Snell the night before after an early hook. But Anderson and closer Pete Fairbanks, despite tense moments, retired the final 10 Houston hitters and eliminated the electronic sign-stealers. If you pitch for the Rays, your feelings might get hurt.
“That’s what we do,” Cash said. “We believe in our process, and we’re going to continue doing that.”
Said 6-foot-8 ace Tyler Glasnow, who will start Game 1: “Cash made the right move again — shocker!”
Glasnow will be facing Kershaw. That quickly, the joy of Sunday night gave way to familiar anxiety in southern California. You’d think, after the manager and scuffling future Hall of Famer were bailed out of a 3-games-to-1 hole against Atlanta, that Roberts will stop overtrusting Kershaw in middle-inning jams and rely on his stable of young arms, including ferocious Brusdar Graterol. Friedman, the numbers guy, would be the first to know Kershaw has fared well this season the first two times he sees a lineup in a game, then craters the third time. In fact, Braves slugger Marcell Ozuna was convinced Graterol was coming into the game. “You know, I thought about it,” Roberts said of making the change. Relieved to see Roberts stay the course, Ozuna ripped an RBI double that again made Kershaw the subject of amateur shrinks everywhere: What’s with the double identity?
Here is where Friedman is vulnerable to criticism, if not another autumn failure. In the offseason, he allowed three key pitchers to get away — elite starter Hyun-Jin Ryu and veterans Rich Hill and Kenta Maeda — and traded another, Ross Stripling, in August. If even one was still around, Kershaw wouldn’t have to start Game 1. Will he bounce back with a lights-out performance like the one against Milwaukee in the wild-card round? Or will he be Mystery Clayton, the one with the 5.72 ERA in his last two starts, the one with an 11-12 record and 4.31 ERA in 35 postseason appearances?
“I’m doing good, doing good,” Kershaw said Monday. “Every year is different. Obviously, you have that experience to draw from. I’m trying to learn from that the best I can. I’m going to prepare like I always do, and I’m excited about another opportunity to get it done.”
And the team? “We do feel good about our momentum and confidence about winning games at any point,” Kershaw said. “We do feel confident going into the World Series, I do know that.”
It would have been delicious, sure, had the Astros won the AL pennant, giving the Dodgers a chance to avenge the cheaters who beat them in the 2017 World Series. Those thoughts ended the minute Tampa Bay beat them. “You can’t think like that,” Kershaw said. “The Rays are a very formidable opponent. Winning a World Series is going to be special no matter who you play. 2017 is over. This World Series is what we’re preparing for now.”
The Rays are not trash-can-banging frauds, we know that. They’re just the sneakiest little ballclub ever to reach late October. I live in L.A., by the beach, and I am feeling tremors.
It is not an earthquake.
Jay Mariotti, called “the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter-century,’’ writes a weekly media column for Barrett Sports Media and regular sports columns for Substack while appearing on some of the 1,678,498 podcasts in production today. He’s an accomplished columnist, TV panelist and radio talk host. Living in Los Angeles, he gravitated by osmosis to film projects. Compensation for this column is donated to the Chicago Sun-Times Charity Trust.
The Future Is Now, Embrace Amazon Prime Video, AppleTV+
As annoying as streaming sports is and as much as I haven’t fully adapted to the habit yet, Amazon and Apple have done a magnificent job of trying to make the process as easy and simplified as possible.
This week has been a reckoning for sports and its streaming future on Amazon Prime Video, AppleTV+, ESPN+, and more.
Amazon announced that Thursday Night Football, which averaged 13 million viewers, generated the highest number of U.S. sign ups over a three hour period in the app’s history. More people in the United States subscribed to Prime during the September 15th broadcast than they did during Black Friday, Prime Day, and Cyber Monday. It was also “the most watched night of primetime in Prime Video’s history,” according to Amazon executive Jay Marine. The NFL and sports in general have the power to move mountains even for some of the nation’s biggest and most successful brands.
This leads us to the conversation happening surrounding Aaron Judge’s chase for history. Judge has been in pursuit of former major leaguer Roger Maris’ record for the most home runs hit during one season in American League history.
The sports world has turned its attention to the Yankees causing national rights holders such as ESPN, Fox, and TBS to pick up extra games in hopes that they capture the moment history is made. Apple TV+ also happened to have a Yankees game scheduled for Friday night against the Red Sox right in the middle of this chase for glory.
Baseball fans have been wildin’ out at the prospects of missing the grand moment when Judge passes Maris or even the moments afterwards as Judge chases home run number 70 and tries to truly create monumental history of his own. The New York Post’s Andrew Marchand has even reported there were talks between YES, MLB, and Apple to bring Michael Kay into Apple’s broadcast to call the game, allow YES Network to air its own production of the game, or allow YES Network to simulcast Apple TV+’s broadcast. In my opinion, all of this hysteria is extremely bogus.
As annoying as streaming sports is and as much as I haven’t fully adapted to the habit yet, Amazon and Apple have done a magnificent job of trying to make the process as easy and simplified as possible. Amazon brought in NBC to help with production of TNF and if you watch the flow of the broadcast, the graphics of the broadcast, NBC personalities like Michael Smith, Al Michaels, and Terry McAuliffe make appearances on the telecast – it is very clear that the network’s imprint is all over the show.
NBC’s experience in conducting the broadcast has made the viewing experience much more seamless. Apple has also used MLB Network and its personalities for assistance in ensuring there’s no major difference between what you see on air vs. what you’re streaming.
Amazon and Apple have also decided to not hide their games behind a paywall. Since the beginning of the season, all of Apple’s games have been available free of charge. No subscription has ever been required. As long as you have an Apple device and can download Apple TV+, you can watch their MLB package this season.
Guess what? Friday’s game against the Red Sox is also available for free on your iPhone, your laptop, or your TV simply by downloading the AppleTV app. Amazon will also simulcast all Thursday Night Football games on Twitch for free. It may be a little harder or confusing to find the free options, but they are out there and they are legal and, once again, they are free.
Apple has invested $85 million into baseball, money that will go towards your team becoming better hypothetically. They’ve invested money towards creating a new kind of streaming experience. Why in the hell would they offer YES Network this game for free? There’s no better way for them to drive subscriptions to their product than by offering fans a chance at watching history on their platform.
A moment like this are the main reason Apple paid for rights in the first place. When Apple sees what the NFL has done for Amazon in just one week and coincidentally has the ability to broadcast one of the biggest moments in baseball history – it would be a terrible business decision to let viewers watch it outside of the Apple ecosystem and lose the ability to gain new fans.
It’s time for sports fans to grow up and face reality. Streaming is here to stay.
MLB Network is another option
If you don’t feel like going through the hassle of watching the Yankees take on the Red Sox for free on Apple TV+, MLB Network will also air all of Judge’s at bats live as they are happening. In case the moment doesn’t happen on Apple TV+ on Friday night, Judge’s next games will air in full on MLB Network (Saturday), ESPN (Sunday), MLB Network again (Monday), TBS (Tuesday) and MLB Network for a third time on Wednesday. All of MLB Network’s games will be simulcast of YES Network’s local New York broadcast. It wouldn’t shock me to see Fox pick up another game next Thursday if the pursuit still maintains national interest.
- One of the weirdest things about the experience of streaming sports is that you lose the desire to channel surf. Is that a good thing or bad thing? Brandon Ross of LightShed Ventures wonders if the difficulty that comes with going from app to app will help Amazon keep viewers on TNF the entire time no matter what the score of the game is. If it does, Amazon needs to work on developing programming to surround the games or start replaying the games, pre and post shows so that when you fall asleep and wake up you’re still on the same stream on Prime Video or so that coming to Prime Video for sports becomes just as much of a habit for fans as tuning in to ESPN is.
- CNN has announced the launch of a new morning show with Don Lemon, Poppy Harlow and Kaitlin Collins. Variety reports, “Two people familiar with plans for the show say it is likely to use big Warner Bros. properties — a visit from the cast of HBO’s Succession or sports analysis from TNT’s NBA crew — to lure eyeballs.” It’ll be interesting to see if Turner Sports becomes a cornerstone of this broadcast. Will the NBA start doing schedule releases during the show? Will a big Taylor Rooks interview debut on this show before it appears on B/R? Will the Stanley Cup or Final Four MVP do an interview on CNN’s show the morning after winning the title? Does the show do remote broadcasts from Turner’s biggest sports events throughout the year?
- The Clippers are back on over the air television. They announced a deal with Nexstar to broadcast games on KTLA and other Nexstar owned affiliates in California. The team hasn’t reached a deal to air games on Bally Sports SoCal or Bally Sports Plus for the upcoming season. Could the Clippers pursue a solo route and start their own OTT service in time for the season? Are they talking to Apple, Amazon, or ESPN about a local streaming deal? Is Spectrum a possible destination? I think these are all possibilities but its likely that the Clippers end up back on Bally Sports since its the status quo. I just find it interesting that it has taken so long to solidify an agreement and that it wasn’t announced in conjunction with the KTLA deal. The Clippers are finally healthy this season, moving into a new arena soon, have the technology via Second Spectrum to produce immersive game casts. Maybe something is brewing?
- ESPN’s Monday Night Football double box was a great concept. The execution sucked. Kudos to ESPN for adjusting on the fly once complaints began to lodge across social media. I think the double box works as a separate feed. ESPN2 should’ve been the home to the double box. SVP and Stanford Steve could’ve held a watch party from ESPN’s DC studio with special guests. The double box watch party on ESPN2 could’ve been interrupted whenever SVP was giving an update on games for ESPN and ABC. It would give ESPN2 a bit of a behind the scenes look at how the magic happens similarly to what MLB Tonight did last week. Credit to ESPN and the NFL for experimenting and continuing to try and give fans unique experiences.
Jessie Karangu is a columnist for BSM and graduate of the University of Maryland with a bachelor’s degree in journalism. He was born and raised in Baltimore, Maryland but comes from Kenyan roots. Jessie has had a passion for sports media and the world of television since he was a child. His career has included stints with USA Today, Tegna, Sinclair Broadcast Group and Sightline Media. He can be found on Twitter @JMKTVShow.
ESPN Shows Foresight With Monday Night Football Doubleheader Timing
ESPN is obviously testing something, and it’s worth poking around at why the network wouldn’t follow the schedule it has used for the last 16 years, scheduling kickoffs at 7 and then 10 on their primary channel.
The Monday Night Football doubleheader was a little bit different this time around for ESPN.
First, it came in Week 2 instead of Week 1. And then, the games were staggered 75 minutes apart on two different channels, the Titans and Bills beginning on ESPN at 7:15 PM ET and the Vikings at the Eagles starting at 8:30 PM on ABC and ESPN+. This was a departure from the usual schedule in which the games kicked off at 7:00 PM ET and then 10:00 PM ET with the latter game on the West Coast.
ESPN is obviously testing something, and it’s worth poking around at why the network wouldn’t follow the schedule it has used for the last 16 years, scheduling kickoffs at 7:00 PM and then 10:00 PM ET on their primary channel. That’s the typical approach, right? The NFL is the most valuable offering in all of sports and ESPN would have at least six consecutive hours of live programming without any other game to switch to.
Instead, they staggered the starts so the second game kicked off just before the first game reached halftime. They placed the games on two different channels, which risked cannibalizing their audience. Why? Well, it’s the same reason that ESPN was so excited about the last year’s Manningcast that it’s bringing it back for 10 weeks this season. ESPN is not just recognizing the reality of how their customers behave, but they’re embracing it.
Instead of hoping with everything they have that the customer stays in one place for the duration of the game, they’re recognizing the reality that they will leave and providing another product within their portfolio to be a destination when they do.
It’s the kind of experiment everyone in broadcasting should be investigating because, for all the talk about meeting the customer where they are, we still tend to be a little bit stubborn about adapting to what they do.
Customers have more choices than ever when it comes to media consumption. First, cable networks softened the distribution advantages of broadcast networks, and now digital offerings have eroded the distribution advantages of cable networks. It’s not quite a free-for-all, but the battle for viewership is more intense, more wide open than ever because that viewer has so many options of not just when and where but how they will consume media.
Programmers have a choice in how to react to this. On the one hand, they can hold on tighter to the existing model and try to squeeze as much out of it as they can. If ESPN was thinking this way it would stack those two Monday night games one after the other just like it always has and hope like hell for a couple of close games to juice the ratings. Why would you make it impossible for your customer to watch both of these products you’ve paid so much to televise?
I’ve heard radio programmers and hosts recite take this same approach for more than 10 years now when it comes to making shows available on-demand. Why would you give your customers the option of consuming the product in a way that’s not as remunerative or in a way that is not measured?
That thinking is outdated and it is dangerous from an economic perspective because it means you’re trying to make the customer behave in your best interest by restricting their choices. And maybe that will work. Maybe they like that program enough that they’ll consume it in the way you’d prefer or maybe they decide that’s inconvenient or annoying or they decide to try something else and now this customer who would have listened to your product in an on-demand format is choosing to listen to someone else’s product entirely.
After all, you’re the only one that is restricting that customer’s choices because you’re the only one with a desire to keep your customer where he is. Everyone else is more than happy to give your customer something else.
There’s a danger in holding on too tightly to the existing model because the tighter you squeeze, the more customers will slip through your fingers, and if you need a physical demonstration to complete this metaphor go grab a handful of sand and squeeze it hard.
Your business model is only as good as its ability to predict the behavior of your customers, and as soon as it stops doing that, you need to adjust that business model. Don’t just recognize the reality that customers today will exercise the freedom that all these media choices provide, embrace it.
Offer more products. Experiment with more ways to deliver those products. The more you attempt to dictate the terms of your customer’s engagement with your product, the more customers you’ll lose, and by accepting this you’ll open yourself to the reality that if your customer is going to leave your main offering, it’s better to have them hopping to another one of your products as opposed to leaving your network entirely.
Think in terms of depth of engagement, and breadth of experience. That’s clearly what ESPN is doing because conventional thinking would see the Manningcast as a program that competes with the main Monday Night Football broadcast, that cannibalizes it. ESPN sees it as a complimentary experience. An addition to the main broadcast, but it also has the benefit that if the customer feels compelled to jump away from the main broadcast – for whatever reason – it has another ESPN offering that they may land on.
I’ll be watching to see what ESPN decides going forward. The network will have three Monday Night Football doubleheaders beginning next year, and the game times have not been set. Will they line them up back-to-back as they had up until this year? If they do it will be a vote of confidence that its traditional programming approach that evening is still viable. But if they overlap those games going forward, it’s another sign that less is not more when it comes to giving your customers a choice in products.
Danny O’Neil is a sports media columnist for BSM. He has previously hosted morning and afternoon drive for 710 ESPN Seattle, and served as a reporter for the Seattle Times. He can be reached on Twitter @DannyOneil or by email at Danny@DannyOneil.com.
Media Noise: Sunday Ticket Has Problems, Marcellus Wiley Does Not
On this episode of Media Noise, Demetri is joined by Brian Noe to talk about the wild year FS1’s Marcellus Wiley has had and by Garrett Searight to discuss the tumultuous present and bright future of NFL Sunday Ticket.
Demetri Ravanos is the Assistant Content Director for Barrett Sports Media. He hosts the Chewing Clock and Media Noise podcasts. He occasionally fills in on stations across the Carolinas. Previous stops include WAVH and WZEW in Mobile, AL, WBPT in Birmingham, AL and WBBB, WPTK and WDNC in Raleigh, NC. You can find him on Twitter @DemetriRavanos and reach him by email at DemetriTheGreek@gmail.com.