About to step up to the plate with its third full season of coverage, MLB Network continues to expand its programming, sponsor and distribution roster as the clubs get ready to play ball on Opening Day, March 31.
MLB Network, which aired over 100 contests a year ago and figures to eclipse that total again during the 2011 campaign, is supplementing its original Thursday game productions and the pickups of regional sports network feeds on Saturdays, with an early evening contest on Fridays and doubleheaders on Tuesday nights.
"Most Tuesdays we'll get started between 7 and 8 p.m. and then head out west after 10 p.m. We want to provide more exposure for the West Coast teams," said MLB Network president and CEO Tony Petitti.
Extending its "30 Clubs in 30 Days" previews from the exhibition season, MLBN plans to showcase all of the circuit's squads in April with "30 Games, 30 Clubs, 30 Days," starting with the Seattle Mariners Oakland A's on April 1. Set for April 8, its Thursday opener pits the New York Yankees against their nemesis the Boston Red Sox at Fenway Park. Bob Costas, who is nominated for his play-by-play work for the network, will deliver the call with veteran analyst Jim Kaat.
"We want to make sure that we're building awareness for the game and all of the clubs," said Petitti. He said there has been "great cooperation" with ESPN, Fox Sports Net's and Comcast's regional sports networks, as well as those owned by the clubs, with the entities sharing the games, footage and feeds of press conferences. "Our goal is to grow the sport," he said, noting MLBN will pick up the game coverage pace under its "Pennant Chase" banner during September.
MLBN, which came out of the box on Jan. 1, 2009 as the largest cable network launch in history with some 50 million homes, is also buttressing its studio lineup, adding 15 weekday hours, now tossing out its first pitch at 3 p.m. with The Rundown, beginning April 1. The two-hour show, hosted by Hazel Mae and Matt Yallof, will provide looks at day games in progress, batting practice, recaps of the previous day's action and previews of the upcoming contests.
That will be followed on weekdays, starting April 4 at 5 p.m., by Intentional Talk, featuring Chris Rose and Kevin Millar.
"We wanted something a little different, without the panel of analysts. This will be much more conversational, a nice back-and-forth about the events of the day and around the game between Chris and Kevin, who have established a good rapport on some of our other shows," said Petitti.
While the pair will be at Studio 42 in at network headquarters in Secaucus, N.J. at the outset, they will often connect from the studios in their homes via Cisco TelePresence, an HD video collaboration system. Cisco operates the network's ballpark cameras throughout MLB's stadiums.
Intentional Talk -- featuring the song "How You Like Me Now?" by UK-based band The Heavy, as its theme, and scheduled to be simulcast on MLB Network Radio on Sirius XM Radio -- will hand the bat to flagship MLB Tonight at 6 p.m.
The offseason saw Barry Larkin move to ESPN, but MLBN has added Ron Gant and Larry Bowa. "Larry provides a managerial perspective and he's right off the field," said Petitti of the veteran who served on Joe Torre's Los Angeles Dodgers coaching staff. "He's been a good fit for us, very opinionated."
During this offseason, MLBN signed 30 new affiliate pacts, including the launch of AT&T U-verse on March 11.
"AT&T U-verse is a major affiliate success for us, given its subscriber growth and that [its parent] does a lot of business with MLB clubs at the local level," said Petitti.
Among the channel's other off-season launches: Service Electric, Cincinnati Bell, Summit Broadband, Hargray Communications, and Antietam Cable TV.
"Our affiliate team has done a good job. It's difficult to grow in this business, but we've had a nice percentage increase since MLB Network started in 2009," he said, noting that discussions continue with other affiliates and Dish Network, the top 10 distribution hole in the channel's now 57-milion subscriber lineup. According to officials, the network has 60% HD penetration.
The channel is owned by MLB, DirecTV and the owners of In Demand, Comcast, Cox, Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks.
In the client clubhouse, Petitti, noting that 2011 marketplace is healthy, said MLB Network's "return rate with advertisers has been excellent. It shows that the network has stickiness if they continue to be with you, and we've been able to recruit new sponsors."
To that end, the ad sales team has scored a presenting sponsor pact with Pennzoil for its new Friday night package and is nearing a similar agreement for the Tuesday doubleheaders. For their part, Chevrolet is now the three-time presenting sponsor for Thursday contests, while Chrysler is back in the box for the Saturday games.
Video game developer 2K Sports has secured a position as a launch sponsor for Intentional Talk, while Home Depot again will have a major studio presence during the opening week of the season.
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