Now in his 27th year at ESPN, Karl Ravech proudly characterizes himself as a company man. 25 of those have been spent as the primary studio host of Baseball Tonight – plenty long enough to qualify him as a baseball man, too. For all intents and purposes, he is the public face of America’s Pastime on the country’s most powerful sports network. And, recently, he has been something of a punching bag for fans who worry about the sport’s place at the Worldwide Leader.
“We, as a network, have been criticized as an NFL network or an NBA network and, ‘You’re not a baseball network,” he says. “That’s the one thing that I’ve heard more than anything… ‘You guys don’t do it anymore.’”
Ravech sees their point. “I think that the last couple of years, we’ve kind of gotten a little bit away from having baseball coverage,” he acknowledges. He’s also confident that 2019 will be the year that outside concerns about the sport’s importance to ESPN are put to bed.
“There’s a renewed zest to have a greater baseball presence,” he says. “I think this is a direct response to that [criticism.]”
The plan to get there runs through Baseball Tonight, the network’s flagship baseball brand and one of its longest-running shows. ESPN opted to bring the show back for a 30th season and third overall as a weekly program after moving away from a daily format in April 2017. Mark Gross, ESPN’s senior vice president of production and remote events, as well as a friend of Ravech dating back to their days at Ithaca College, will oversee the program and has already helped implement two significant additions.
The first is a daily SportsCenter segment called the “Baseball Tonight Report,” which will utilize remote hits from talent including Buster Olney, Tim Kurkjian and Jeff Passan to bolster traditional highlight coverage. It’s a major boon to the show’s visibility, as well as a way for ESPN to have its cake and eat it, too, by injecting elements of Baseball Tonight’s brand into daily programming while still confining the show itself to a specialized time slot on Sunday nights.
“To know that SportsCenter, which I grew up on at the network, is having a renewed interest in more baseball content is an important thing for the consumer,” Ravech says. “However they consume sports, they’re going to get more baseball. That’s a win as far as I’m concerned.”
The second, in Gross’ words, is “we’re going to get more aggressive with where the show goes.” Baseball Tonight plans to travel to the expected haunts, including multiple Sunday Night Baseball games, the MLB All-Star Game and the World Series. But it will also make stops at both the Men’s and Women’s College World Series, the Little League World Series and the baseball winter meetings in a bid to brand Baseball Tonight as a true roadshow. That format has been a smashing success with other properties like College GameDay, but Ravech believes the true benefits won’t be reflected in the ratings. Instead, he points to the credibility it builds among fans and baseball personnel alike to see ESPN boots on the ground.
“I always think that it’s very important for people that are on television and looked on as experts to be in the environment they are talking about [where the game] is being played,” he says. “Ultimately, as a sports fan, you want to know more about your team than the person you’re talking to. And if you have the people that are on the inside getting that information out to you, well, then you’re going to want to be a part of that, and you’re going to want to watch.”
Both Ravech and Gross, however, are not naïve to the larger challenge the show faces as a highlight-driven program in an era where consumers can simply pull up last night’s action on their phones.
“You’re battling for every second, every minute, for every segment to keep people watching,” Gross says, and Baseball Tonight believes the greatest weapon in its arsenal is an ingrained reputation for quality. There is the deep roster of analysts, which this year adds Ryan Howard as a regular and current Yankees starter CC Sabathia as a part-time contributor. There is the broadcast tone: Conversational yet informative, glib yet not too cursory. Gross says he’s keeping a close eye on each episode’s alchemy and how it balances baseball analysis with social moments as well as touching on the latest news.
And, when it comes to those highlights themselves, Ravech is adamant that not all condensed game action is created equal.
“I kind of get offended when it’s, ‘You can get highlights anywhere,'” Ravech says. “Okay, well, you can go get a hamburger in seven different places. That doesn’t mean you stop making hamburgers. You try to do it the best, and I’ve always maintained we’ve done it the best and continue to do it the best.”
It’s a mantra ESPN hopes the rest of the baseball world keeps saying about Baseball Tonight overall.