If Major League Baseball’s plan to stage seven-inning doubleheaders may have some purists clucking about the adoption of backyard rules—the “ghost man on second” edict was already put into place for extra-inning games back in June—the compromise is less a threat to the game than a cost-saving measure. Familiar to any fan of minor league ball, the practice is designed to get as many mandated games played as is possible during a pandemic that also happens to coincide with peak thunderstorm season.
According to ESPN’s Jeff Passan, the commissioner’s office and the MLB Players Association agreed to the new wrinkle yesterday, and the abbreviated doubleheader format is expected to be put to the test as early as Saturday afternoon.
While no doubleheaders were scheduled before the season began on July 23, the Miami Marlins’ coronavirus outbreak and a seemingly more contained flare-up in Philadelphia have already resulted in lengthy postponements. With very little slack in the 66-day slate, doubleheaders are pretty much the only way these clubs will be able to get all their games in before the postseason begins on Sept. 29.
In addition to making it a little easier to ensure that each club completes its full complement of 60 regular-season games, the compacted doubleheaders will go a long way toward appeasing the regional sports networks, who are anxious to televise as many ballgames as they can after having been robbed of what amounts to 63% of the 2020 MLB season. Baseball is particularly important to the RSNs that serve markets like Seattle, Baltimore, Kansas City and San Diego, which do not have the luxury of a local NBA or NHL franchise.
If slashing as many as 12 outs per game may serve to keep MLB on pace to make a playoff run, the shortened outings will exact a bit of a toll from the league’s national TV partners, which generate far more advertising revenue per inning than do the RSNs. The shrunken format eliminates three or four commercial breaks per game, which works out to between 12 to 16 minutes of available inventory in a two-fer. In a national broadcast, that could add up to a loss of between $600,000 and $800,000 per game, depending on whether the home team needs its last ups.
Undoubtedly, the bulk of this summer’s quickie doubleheaders will be remanded to the RSNs, which will be glad to have them on their air. And if Fox or ESPN decides to play along and pick up one of the speed-date twin bills, the opportunities to squeeze in some compensatory booth reads are there for the taking. (For the record, whenever we’ve tried to pitch a Fox Sports exec our idea for a “Bottom’s Up with Joe Buck” integration—think Harry Caray during his tenure with the White Sox, only with better product placement—the answer has always been a firm “no.”)