JUMP CUT
A REVIEW OF CONTEMPORARY MEDIA

copyright 2009, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut
, No. 51, spring 2009

Baseball on TV

by Deborah Tudor

Center Field Shot: A History of Baseball on Television by James Walker and Robert Bellamy (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2008). 402 pages. $24.95

Books about the relation between baseball and television too often resort to commonplace generalizations highlighting the negative effects the evil empire of the air has had on America’s pastime. Center Field Shot provides a good corrective to this pervasive idea through its comprehensive, detailed history of the shifting economic relationships between television and baseball. The book divides this field of inquiry into broad thematic sections: Local, National, Marriage, and Coverage. The first three sections map the wide variety of arrangements and agreements between major league baseball owners and television stations and networks; the last section deals with announcers and innovations in the coverage of the sport. The book offers a complete analysis of legal and economic policies. However, larger cultural contexts for media and baseball are dealt with rather perfunctorily.

Economic adversaries and partners

Major League baseball and the television industry have oscillated between adversarial and cooperative economic relationships. The book traces the early broadcasts by discussing the quality of coverage; the protectivist nature of early baseball owners who feared that television would diminish attendance; the exploitation of television as publicity; and the emergence of complicated rights packages. The outgrowth of this history can be seen in the multiple channels that covered baseball on television daily migrated from free broadcast to cable and satellite networks.

The book’s strength lies in the authors’ meticulous explanations of these economic processes. Although much of the broad outline of this story is known, the details of the television-baseball compacts over the years will enrich the knowledge of both communication and sports scholars. Walker and Bellamy have assembled an impressive array of data about economic arrangements and have organized it in a useful fashion. What emerges is a clear picture of how baseball is affected by the “ongoing restructuring of the broadcast industry” (43) The authors clarify the bewildering array of contract arrangements that have existed, the types of coverage, from local stations and regional sports networks to national broadcast and cable and satellite sportscasts. Walker and Bellamy are careful analysts, and the economic analysis in this book is clear, well documented, and finely detailed.

The discussion of vertical integration provides a good example of the author’s nuanced understanding of the economics of baseball on television. They carefully track the attempts at vertical integration over the past forty-fifty years. In the 1960s, vertical integration attempts of such as CBS' acquisition of the Yankees, failed due to lack of sufficient distribution channels. This section indicates that the explosion of channels creates an industrial structure allowing vertical integration between media and baseball to succeed. The authors point out that vertical integration of sports and media differs from that of media corporations, being more of a “backward integration” of corporations acquiring product to use on distribution and exhibition channels. The authors connect this difference with a good explanation of the factors that often led to the failure of such arrangements. The complexity of already existing sports rights on regional, national and local levels, the lack of global media viability of U.S. baseball teams, and public labor disputes in baseball all contributed to difficulties with the vertical integration of media and major league ball teams.

Walker and Bellamy include the minor leagues in their analysis, providing an inclusive picture of sport and media. A section dealing with the impact of the various media arrangements on the minor leagues destroys some familiar mythologies relating to the “death” of the minors, which in popular journalism is often attributed to the spread of media coverage of the majors. Walker and Bellamy point out that television had little effect upon the minors until the middle of the 1950s. In fact, the teams that declined most rapidly were small town teams with little television penetration (218). The authors consider Minor League Baseball to be in its “golden era” now, with attendance at an all time high. (218) Since the ramifications of revenue sharing ripple out from MLB to the farm teams, it’s critical to understand how media affects them, for these farm teams provide the training ground for future major league stars who play a crucial role in the ongoing value of media rights to games.

Culture and mythologies

Several key themes of the book situate baseball and media's entwined economic history within broader cultural histories. The book seeks to explain how the twin institutions of baseball and media give rise to certain mythologies. These links are a welcome addition to the economic cause-and effect-sequences I outlined here; however, the book is somewhat inconsistent in its treatment of cultural issues. The book develops some points very well, such as the exploration of various ways that baseball owners and, occasionally, politicians consider new technologies as a threat to established institutions like baseball. In addition to concerns over broadcast rights and licensing, the owners used public complaints about filming for broadcast to exert control over their teams on television. Not only did owners fear the loss of gate receipts if games were televised, they also claimed to fear that a telephoto lens would allow the opposing team to steal signals, and that certain camera framings disrupted the viewers’ established notions of what baseball should look like.

Walker and Bellamy clearly connect these claims to the widespread suspicion that improved technology would make broadcasts “better than being there” and thus would impact attendance. Social shifts complicated this fear in the post World War II era, when ballparks shifted to the suburbs to accommodate the middle class' outward flight. The ballparks were rebuilt in locations away from public transportation and closer to cheap land that could accommodate mega-stadiums with enormous parking lots. Although the authors identify these relations, they offer only a cursory analysis that ignores contradictions.

The book explores how baseball mythologies, such as the sport’s responsibility to its fans and about the public's nostalgia for a mythical, “pure” sport of the past inform current public debates about the league cartel. The authors give examples of ways that politicians use baseball, or any sport, as a valence issue, pointing out that baseball is an issue on which politicians can appeal to populist ideas without really doing anything about the status of major league baseball’s legalized cartel.(251) The book also raises interesting points relating 1980s nostalgia myths surrounding baseball to Reagan era politics, but again this point remains largely undeveloped.

On the other hand, book clarifies instances in which cultural logic of certain strategic commercial choices, such as the expansion of minor league baseball after World War II, contradicts market logic. Given that the book’s project is primarily stated as an economic history, perhaps it is inevitable that cultural issues will receive less space. It would have been more useful if the authors had expanded their argument about ways that baseball and media utilized mythologies to propose and sell certain cartel actions to Congress and to the public. Such actions in turn, helped smooth the way for baseball to keep its unique antitrust status. The discrete examples they give are interesting, but a more detailed argument on this point would greatly strengthen this history project.

The sport's significant cultural positioning helps us understand how the business of baseball maintains the illusion of being vital to the public interest in an era when stadium seating, for example, is clearly priced for corporate box owners. To cite one example, this coming year, the New York Yankee will command $800,000 for such a box. The authors published the book before that Yankees' figure became available, and therefore they could not discuss this development. However, their historical economic analysis allows us to understand how the complex interplay of public mythologies about television and the sport combine with actual media revenues combine to enable Major League owners to reap maximum profits from seating.

Despite the limited amount of attention given to cultural issues surrounding economic arrangements, Center Field Shot will help cultural analysts gain a more nuanced understanding of the ways in which baseball and media corporations negotiate their relations in an era of global media convergence. Walker and Bellamy understand the media limitations upon a sport that lacks the global appeal of soccer, and the book reminds us that even in the broadband era with its multiple viewing options, there is the possibility that the baseball-saturated fan will simply switch off America’s pastime.


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