THE MLB NET AT 10: IT’S IN A LEAGUE OF ITS OWN
By Tom Hoffarth
We had the pleasure of reminiscing with Tony Petitti and Rob McGlarry about the first 10 years of the MLB Network’s existence — it launched on Jan. 1, 2009, with a record 50 million homes that could access it. The result is a post this week at The Hollywood Reporter.
There was no crying in their baseball remembrances. Only a lot of laughs and memories of the many highs that came from becoming the fourth of the four major sports leagues to put up their own 24/7 cable channel.
Petitti was the first MLB Net president and CEO, and McGlarry was the Senior VP of Programming and Business Affairs. Eventually, Petitti turned the reins over to McGlarry in late 2014, when Petitti joined the MLB Commissioner’s Office.
One of the interesting sidebars to the MLB Network launch, and its first year on the air, was brought up again in a one-hour special that the net has been airing in celebration of its anniversary.
Studio analysts Harold Reynolds, Al Leiter, Dan Pleasac and Sean Casey talk about how the MLB Network carried live the 2009 MLB Draft — but only one potential draftee showed up. And as the picks were taking place … No. 10, 15, 20 … this high school player still wasn’t picked.
Finally, with the 25th choice of the first round, the Angels grabbed Mike Trout. And with that, the MLB Network was grateful he was not only there, but what a story it holds up to be 10 years later.
In addition to the Q&A posted in THR, we have more to add here:
For Tony: All the time you had put in at ABC, NBC and just coming over from CBS Sports to run this. Why was it worth making that leap of faith at the time?
Petitti: It was a really tough decision. I loved CBS. I had a great relationship there and I loved the responsibilities I had there on the production and programming and business side of it. You work on big shows that has a halo effect on how you think about things. So giving that up was not easy but for me personally, this opportunity for this startup with a culmination of all the things I had done in my career, even going back to a general manager of Channel 2 in New York. There was no guarantee that I’d do a great job, but if there was ever a place to take some risk with this skill set … There were people working close with me who told me, across the board, there’s nothing like this you’ll ever do with a start-up especially at this level with 50 million people on Day 1. Even people like Dick Ebersol and Dennis Swanson, whose opinions I really value, their attitude and advice about this was about how exciting it is to build something from scratch with that comradery. I’m equally as proud to this day the way the people at MLB Network work together. I’ve been blessed to work at other places, and I was so relieved to see how everyone there is very supportive, they work hard and they care. You can’t ask for anything better than that as a manager
For Rob: The business model of how MLB Net was getting into more homes right away and offering the MLB Extra Inning package as part of distribution? You got major cable and satellite deals to buy in as well. Was that something you learned?
McGlarry: I can’t speak for the other networks but trying to use the out of market packages as a lever with the distributors had not been done before. We were focused on broad distribution, it’s no secret there was a a fair amount of controversy in 2007 when we did initial deal for something that was two years away from launching. Some who couldn’t get out of market packages weren’t happy about it, and then I was in Washington for as senate hearing by Sen. Kerry about it, as there was a war going on, which made it interesting. But the great thing we reached agreement with Comcast, Time Warner, Cox and many other large operators, Cablevision and Charter, and we were already on with DirecTV so we knew we’d have the 50 million homes, and knowing that distribution allowed us freedom and resources to get the network that baseball could be proud of.
Somewhere in this whole MLB Network existence, there was a merger with the NHL Network, sharing resources. How did that puzzle fit together?
McGlarry: That was in the first year I was here. Someone asked, ‘What do you think of doing the NHL Network too?’ I thought they were joking. No they were serious. Can you do it the start of the season? For us as a business, it happened at the right time when I think some networks were having to cut back and we were more efficient to operate two networks. It was also efficient from a creative perspective. It provided a nice outlet for some people here. We learned from baseball and hockey, some work and some don’t, and it’s been a very productive relationship with the league and great for the people here and all our business partners. It turns out, the seasons align themselves incredibly well, too. I’m sure they weren’t thinking about that, but if the regular seasons overlap, it’s only about a week (in April). Then comes the hockey playoffs. We can also have fun with it at the MLB Network. Our Studio 42 has the replica of a baseball field, but right away we had a Stadium Series game at Coors Field (in Denver). So we got a hockey rink and put it down in the middle of Studio 42.
The innovation of the Ballpark Cam gave you access to everything that was going on at a stadium, before and after a game in particular, for batting practice, for live interviews. How did that come about?
Petitti: When I was at CBS Sports, Ken Aagaard was there as head of operations and allowed to do some freelance projects. One of them was to help the MLB Network. So he’d be in his office down the hall from me, and we’d built this great friendship over the years, working in control rooms together. He would be telling me he had a meeting to take with the MLB Network, and I’d be getting on him: ‘C’mon, we’ve got the NFL playoffs right now, and March Madness is coming, and you’re worried about this?’ And all that time, I never told him I’m thinking about going there, too. I finally get hired, and I can tell him, and then we’re working on this Ballpark Cam project now. It was so much fun. Of all things that were contributed as ideas for the MLB Network, the Ballpark Cam was the best thing. We have two live cameras in every ballpark and we control remotely, in high def, it pans and tilts. One near a dugout and the other in center field. We could do interviews from every game without worry about booking facilities, getting an uplink, finding someone to do the interview. There were hours of content just generated from watching batting practice.
Even 10 years later, this is the game-changing technology. If you think about it, NFL players live at their practice facility and have days off before their games. But with baseball, the players basically live at the park, so you have to connect with them there. And no matter who the player was, if they gave us their time, we put them on the air. You want them to know that when they had their big moment, we got it on air. Every player felt welcomed. All became the Ballpark Cam gave us that freedom. I can’t imagine the network without it now.
The talent that it takes to fill 24/7 every week must have been a challenge as well. You’ve got nearly 50 on-air people now. But the first hire was Bob Costas — in a deal that still allowed him to work at NBC and HBO. Having Costas there, at the right place at the right time from the first show, had to be a tremendous anchor to resonate for the channel — even winning a Sports Emmy Award for Outstanding Sports Personality/Studio Host that first year in 2009.
Petitti: It was a real passion play for Bob. He not only got us the quality programming from the start, but he also helped book talent. He made phone calls to get people to come on with us. There was a huge value in that. It all happened because, as I’m winding down at CBS (in May, 2008), Barry Frank (Costas’ agent) called to ask if I had thought about having Bob for this MLB Network. I was like, ‘Wow, he wants to work for us? Really?’ You didn’t see a lot of that (ability to share talent) with league-owned networks. Dick Ebersol was great in allowing Bob to do stuff with us (as Costas was still employed at NBC). Dick was also great in recommending Matt Vasgersian to work for us. It’s not about pride of authorship as all these ideas and offers start coming to you from all over the place.
Every day, during the season, and in the off season, you wake up to maybe four or five story lines that are important in the game. The challenge of a 24/7 network is to present those story lines with different perspectives so you’re not repetitious. Not everything is analytical like we do on “MLB Tonight.” A show Brian Kenny does comes from another perspective. There’s Chris Russo, who talks like a really educated fan. He may not be for everybody, but he’s doing it in a voice some people really like. Analysts from all different perspectives. That’s the trick of all this, right? We don’t chase a big story when it breaks, we all have to stay in our lanes. We have to bring different voices to it. That becomes the ultimate challenge and the test of what makes you good or not.
When Ken Burns created the “Baseball” historical documentary in 1994, it was structured so that almost every episode covered a 10-year period in the game’s progression. In 2010, he added the “Tenth Inning” that would cover the 1994 strike through the 2009 season. That’s kind of an interesting cutoff — in 2009, the MLB Network launches. If Burns ever decides to do another chapter — call it the “Eleventh Inning” — it would have to pick up at 2009, which is the birth of the MLB Network, and all that it contributed to the game’s history. Agree?
Petitti: In that period, and even earlier, there’s also the creation of MLB.com, which set the tone of creating a world-class original digital content company, and then soon came the launching a network that’s highly regarded and provided baseball fans with content they love. The network has been in every big moment since then. Even if someone else is covering the World Series, the MLB Network is there three or four hours before and the same amount of time after each game. It’s around everything that matters, with enthusiasm and passion and great knowledge. It really is a huge part of the evolution of the game.