MLB Network set to launch on New Year's Day

Updated: December 24, 2008, 5:02 PM ET
Associated Press

SECAUCUS, N.J. -- The Mariners could be lurching toward a 101-loss season as they were late last summer and Harold Reynolds would still want his game highlights.

Seattle's former All-Star second baseman figures many fans are like him, loyal to their favorite team whether it's in first place or last, and hankering to see what happened each night as quickly as possible.

The MLB Network is set to launch Jan. 1, and it might seem that a 24-hour channel is aimed at fans who passionately follow the entire league. But as their numbers dwindle, they aren't the viewers president and CEO Tony Petitti is relying on to sustain the network.

The reality of TV sports today is that World Series ratings fluctuate greatly from year to year depending on who's playing. Still, many teams draw large audiences in their home markets. So while the MLB Network is national, Petitti likes to think of it as a conglomeration of regional interests.

"We want to complement the way fans watch their local team," Petitti said during a Dec. 17 tour of the network's studios.

For the first year at least, the network will be more focused on highlights and analysis than live games. It will air only 26 regular-season matchups, but will broadcast an eight-hour highlight show six nights a week. The lengthy time slot will require two shifts of commentators.

Matt Vasgersian and Victor Rojas will serve as hosts, with former players Reynolds, Al Leiter, Joe Magrane and Dan Plesac as analysts.

Petitti hopes that fans seeking an update on a particular game will learn to automatically flip to MLB Network, confident they will be quickly rewarded. The network will be able to do live look-ins and show highlights while the game is still going on.

"If we establish a pattern, we've done a good job," he said.

It's no secret the program's main competition will be ESPN, specifically its "Baseball Tonight" franchise. The new network's highlight show is even similarly named: "MLB Tonight."

Petitti diplomatically notes that because "MLB Tonight" lasts so much longer than "Baseball Tonight," a different structure is inevitable. But it's also clear the new network seeks to capitalize on the perception, fair or not, that ESPN spends most of its time focusing on a few teams.

So Petitti is promising an egalitarian approach. Pennant chases and major controversies will get plenty of coverage, of course, but fans of every team can expect regular and complete highlights no matter how small the club's market or poor its record.

Petitti, a former CBS Sports executive, compares the balancing act to airing the early rounds of the NCAA men's basketball tournament, something he was quite familiar with at his old job.

MLB Network will initially be available in about 50 million of the country's approximately 114.5 million homes with televisions, through deals with DirecTV and major cable companies. That's the most households in which a new cable channel has ever made its debut.

The network will launch at 6 p.m. EST on New Year's Day with an edition of "Hot Stove," its offseason studio show. The original broadcast of Don Larsen's perfect game from the 1956 World Series will follow.

MLB Network is spending more than $50 million to hire staff, build sets and renovate its facility. It's housed in the former MSNBC studios, a 140,000-square-foot building in a quiet office park a few miles west of Manhattan. The network scrapped plans to move its headquarters to a new office in Harlem.

One of the two main studios -- named No. 42 for Jackie Robinson -- is designed as a replica ballpark, with a half-scale infield and details down to a fake bullpen phone and "No Pepper" painted on the brick wall. The mound can be moved to regulation distance should analysts want to demonstrate techniques.

Petitti expects to eventually have about 250 employees. The number was nearly 165 in mid-December; it was 60 at the start of November and fewer than 10 at the end of July.

"It was like Jack Nicholson from 'The Shining,' basically," Petitti said of walking around the studios back then.

Baseball joins the NFL, NBA and NHL in launching its own channel. As the network looks to fill hour after hour, it enjoys the advantage of a sport in which teams play nearly every day, creating new highlights and developments to constantly air and discuss.

"If you look at sports and who should have a 24-7 network," Petitti said, "baseball is pretty much the obvious one that would work."


Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press

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