Major League Baseball may have a new set of problems on its hands after Alex Rodriguez's steroid admission last week, but the story turned out great for one of MLB's biggest assets: its new network.
When Sports Illustrated broke the news that in past years the New York Yankees slugger had tested positive for performance-enhancing substances, MLB Network jumped into action over the weekend with on-air teams led by hosts Bob Costas and Matt Vasgersian.
Since its debut in January, the network has mainly provided a combination of studio shows and library footage, with the expectation that it would ramp up as the season drew closer. But with Rodriguez, the network suddenly had to deal with one of the biggest baseball stories in years, one that was going to forever tarnish a player considered among the game's most talented stars, and perhaps the entire league as well.
While it was ESPN that landed the first Rodriguez interview, MLB Network nabbed Selena Roberts, the reporter behind the story who was later verbally attacked by the player. The network followed up with unabashed analysis, despite its position as a league-owned property.
The network received widespread kudos from the media for its handling of the news. The Los Angeles Times called it “a blueprint for other sports-sponsored networks.”
Despite the fact that this clearly was a coming-out party for MLB Network—one that could have been a huge black eye had the story been mishandled, or if the network were perceived as being soft on coverage—MLB Network President and CEO Tony Petitti says he really wasn't considering consequences as the story unfolded.
“When you are in breaking-news mode, you really don't look at it globally,” Petitti says. “It's more, 'Are we doing the right thing?' You don't think of it as a defining moment. I was most proud that guys who were basically just thrown together did such a great job.”
As to the question of how much input he may have been getting from Commissioner Bud Selig's office, Petitti claims he was given free reign.
“It is the same mandate I got when I got this job,” he says. “Cover everything, even though baseball might not always be portrayed in the best light.”
MLB vs. NFL
MLB Network has only a month under its belt, but its coverage of the Rodriguez steroids story offers a telling contrast to the National Football League's network, which was launched Nov. 4, 2003. Media coverage from much of the nascent period of the NFL Network centered on its contentious carriage battles with cable companies, with little emphasis on the network's strong content.
Unlike the NFL Network, MLB used partnerships to launch the network in approximately 50 million homes.
“Because we had clearances, we could focus on content, and that is great for us,” Petitti says. “Don't get me wrong, we still want to add more clearances, but it's a different framework.”