With less than three weeks to go before the regular season is set to begin in Washington, Major League Baseball’s media partners aren’t entirely sure how the 2020 TV schedule will shake out, and the lack of certainty has somewhat hampered the ad sales process.
Although some of the larger pieces are beginning to fall into place—Fox, which debuts its broadcast coverage on July 25, has all of its Saturday night matchups sorted out, while ESPN has a handle on much of its Sunday Night Baseball and Monday Night Baseball slate—the rest of the TV lineup remains unsettled. The Saturday doubleheader schedule for Fox’s cable sibling, FS1, is largely unfinished, and the over-the-top service ESPN+ awaits the final word on its daily rations of live MLB action.
TBS remains unfinished as well, although ambiguity has long been a hallmark of the Turner Sports network’s MLB contract. The TBS games, which are blacked out in the local markets, are announced 10 days in advance—a dynamic that will continue throughout the coming 60-game, 66-day campaign.
If the lack of a set TV schedule has prevented the networks from making an aggressive pitch to advertisers—it’s a lot easier to sell a Yankees-Red Sox game than a TBD-TBD showdown on a Saturday night in August—ESPN had the advantage of locking in the Opening Day telecast a few weeks ago. On Thursday, July 23, the cable network will throw out the first pitch of the truncated season with a pitchers’ duel between the Yankees’ new ace Gerrit Cole and the Nationals’ three-time Cy Young winner and 2019 finalist Max Scherzer.
Turner’s first game is Yanks-Nats on July 26. Fox will announce its complete broadcast slate later this evening.
While MLB Network will televise a one-hour release special beginning today at 6 p.m. EDT, the complete ESPN+ and FS1 schedules aren’t expected to be revealed until later this month. The procedure of allocating second-tier games in the Fox and Disney arsenal is complicated by exclusivity of the multiple regional sports networks’ media deals. But now that the flagship broadcasts have been determined, the process of selling commercial units in the highest-rated games can begin in earnest.
While this season is anything but conventional, the TV slate should look and feel a lot like a “normal” back half. To help drive viewership and boost unit costs, more games will be broadcast in primetime, but for the most part, the volume for the two-month stretch will be similar to that of previous, non-pandemic seasons. ESPN through September should carry around 30 nationally-televised regular-season games, with ESPN+ picking up another 60, while Fox should air as many as 10 primetime contests and FS1 an additional 16.
And while Fox and the Los Angeles Dodgers had to give up on their plans for the 2020 All-Star Game, at least one long-awaited novelty has been preserved. Fox is proceeding with its August 13 Field of Dreams game in Iowa, only instead of the promised Yankees-White Sox pairing, Chicago will take on a more proximate club in St. Louis.
If the short season will help the networks claw back at least some of the ad revenue they’ve lost to the coronavirus, the real money starts pouring in during the playoffs. According to Kantar Media, national MLB games in 2019 generated $583.8 million in ad sales revenue, of which $196.3 million came from regular-season games while $387.5 million resulted from the postseason.
Whether baseball makes it all the way to October is another story.