MLB Network Launches, But Will Anyone Watch?

Timing is everything in baseball. And the Jan. 1 launch of MLB Television has the timing of an Andruw Jones swing for the Dodgers last season — late and off balance.

The MLB Network launches just 14 months after the NHL Network launched. That’s right, the NHL — a second-tier sport largely banished to some cable station nobody can remember if they even have — has had its own television network for more than a year. The NFL has had one for five years, the NBA for a few. Welcome to the party, MLB! Glad you could make it.

Apparently, MLB officials are going for a soft launch, where nobody tunes in for a while so the kinks can be worked out. Why else would you launch on Jan. 1, the biggest day of college football all year, when all that sport’s traditions are in full bloom?

To distract viewers from the Rose and Orange bowls, the MLB’s first show (at 3 p.m. Eastern) will be the Hot Stove Show, which really should be renamed the Lukewarm Stove show. Well, everywhere except New York. For an hour talking heads will discuss that Manny Ramirez has no good options, that the Yankees have a lot of money and how Brad Penny’s ERA over 6.00 really should work fine in Boston. It’s great because you can’t get talking heads anywhere else.

During the season, the network will have a live nightly news broadcast on baseball with live cut-ins to games. Basically, just like ESPN's Baseball Tonight but in a studio that has a half-size baseball field in it, complete with bleachers (but no beer and peanuts).

Not that the MLB is doing everything wrong. The MLB Network launches in a cable record 55 million homes — that is more than the 42 million for the NFL Network is in now. The reason is that the MLB was wise not to get into a power struggle with major cable providers about costs to subscribers. Of course, the NFL stands a chance of winning that battle; the MLB was better off avoiding the fight.

In spite of everything, the MLB does have the sport’s rich history to fall back on. After the first hour of talking heads mercifully ends, the network will show Don Larson’s perfect game in 1956 to clinch the World Series for the Yankees. After the game there will be new commentary by Larson himself, as well as catcher Yogi Berra.

Hopefully they’ll show it again. A lot of people will be watching the Orange Bowl.

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