It is a brand new season of Major League Baseball and I wanted to start with an interview with someone ‘in the know’ and I can choose no one better than Mike Carlson. Known to many for his work on Sky Sports, Channel 4 and BBC for his colour commentary and forthright views on American Football and Basketball to name but two. However, it is Mike’s past as being responsible for selling MLB to Europe as my reasoning to talk to him. I caught up with him recently in the metaphorical ‘batting cage’ to pitch him a few knuckleballs. As to be expected, Mike was more of a “swing for the fence” kind of guy than to bunt or sacrifice fly….
Having worked for Major League Baseball, what would you say are the main strengths and weaknesses of the organization?
“MLB tries to protect a game that America still sees as its national pastime, and thus holds to a higher standard than the other sports. It needs a relatively independent commissioner: I worked there in the last comish era, under Fay Vincent, and it was not an easy place to try to do my job, which was to sell the game in Europe: especially as I was supposed to make money doing it!”
“Its strength is the solid foundation of tradition the game has. Its weakness is a structure that often seems to undercut its own selling of the game because of its internal strife, between owners and players, and indeed between big and small market teams. In a sense, it’s been harder to MLB to adjust from the days when baseball clubs made a living for their owners (and everyone else) based on gate receipts, to the modern era, where the game’s profitability is based on its supplying hours of television programming, with the massive revenues that generates.”
Could you ever see a time when MLB has a similar level of market penetration in the UK market as the NFL?
“Baseball has a problem: it’s a long season, ten times more games than football, and the championship isn’t a cup-final type event, but a best of seven that creates scheduling problems and doesn’t guarantee a winner take all game. This diffusion, combined with a 7 month daily schedule rather than football’s five month weekend schedule makes it a tougher sell. Throw in the fact that you can’t programme the games to a set length, and it’s a TV problem, and TV is the key….”
Do you feel that the MLB (compared to the NFL, NHL and NBA) do enough to accommodate fans outside of North America?
“It depends on where those fans are. Baseball does a lot in Canada, obviously, and in Japan…and quite a bit in a few other baseball countries. Basketball is worldwide, comparable to soccer, while hockey has a solid international core in winter countries. The NFL, basically, now approaches the market through TV (which is an easier sell as a spectacle than baseball, and easier to programme) and by staging live games. MLB requires specialist stadia, and with the longer season has less time to let its game travel: when could an MLB team come to London? during spring training? (I put on 2 games with minor leaguers at the Oval, 1 was rained out), in November? Rain stops baseball, which it doesn’t do in football, and of course NBA and NHL are indoors.”
ESPN America’s coverage of baseball takes the broadcaster’s feed without any UK based commentary / analysis. Would adopting this add to the appeal of the sport in the UK?
“I assume you mean a British broadcaster adopting it? I don’t see how. The breaks need to be filled, but the commercial load is different in the UK and BBC has none, which means you wind up with dead time that ESPN filled with self promos or pretty boring graphics or videos repeated endlessly. If you want to be a success in this country, you eventually need to reach the general audience and they will need someone to uncomplicate things….”
With the advent of internet streaming such as MLB.TV, NHL Gamecenter Live, NBA League Pass and NFL Game Pass, do you fear for your future in broadcasting?
“Definitely. Though such things appeal primarily to the converted fan, and require you to subscribe…free TV is still the way to reach a general audience.”
As an American living in the UK, are you surprised by how passionate (and committed) that fans are here?
“Actually, yes, sometimes, because there are intensely passionate and loyal fans. I understand that part of this is the tribal mentality of sports supporters here. The kind that insists a network show their 3-10 team playing a 4-9 team and complain when the network chooses to show two 10-3 teams playing each other but, for example, I get stopped a lot on the train by conductors who work late and watch our C4 show, and they’ve become committed fans, and when I do the BBC Super Bowl, which reaches a big audience and starts relatively early for me, at 11pm, I am amazed by how many people say they are fans but don’t watch because they don’t have Sky and can’t stay up late for C4 on Sundays!”
When working with British broadcasting colleagues, do you find that you are surprised (pleasantly or not!) with the level of appreciation and understanding of North American sport?
“I’m not surprised at all but my experience is that sport is easy to understand. This was how I became a sports editor at a London-based TV news agency when I was 26: I understood cricket and the editor thought that was amazing. I work with people who are professionals, and mostly behave like it! Seriously, if you approach a sport without negative preconceptions and issues, understanding it is restrained only by how much you want to know. I have worked with producers whose knowledge is fantastic, presenters who are real fans, and other presenters who aren’t diehard fans but have taken the time to understand the game, follow the season, know the teams, and ask the right questions. Conversely when I host, or do play by play, my job is to ask questions that make sense and elicit answers for the audience. I’ve worked mostly on American or international sport, not much on so-called British sport, but I’d like to think I could do the same on, say, rugby or cricket or football, working with an expert.”
* * * * *
For me, this was a fascinating interview into the mindset of a man who had been challenged to sell America’s game to the British. I can’t help but feel that Mr Carlson is left naturally sceptical after his time with the MLB here. However, his CV is full of evidence that he’s not going to go quietly and us British need his ‘take’ on American sport. As much as I respect his opinions of TV, I disagree about the future of sports consumption here. MLB.TV is a wonderful package and, unlike mainstream TV, full of choices. The example of the ‘tribal’ fans wanting to see their poor performing team will, nearly, always been fulfilled by the multi game approach of MLB.TV. Yes, it is less ‘personal’ than a studio setting that dips in and out of the game but at least the fan will see the game. Perhaps, there is room for both. I hope so.