It’s All Fun and Games (‘Till Somebody Brings Up the Money…)

Roster Change in Media Coverage of MLB

Pitchers, catchers, and players reporting to camp in the “best shape of their lives,” aren’t the only things fresh and new as we head into Major League Baseball this Spring. Of course, rosters change, there may be updates to “pace of play,” and there’s that whole free agency squabble…but that’s not what we’re talking about here. This change is a potentially tectonic shift in the coverage and conversation of the action on the field.  

Mike Behind the Mic (Image via Newsday.com)

Signaling this sea-change is longtime sports-talk host Mike Francesa stepping away from the mic, making it the first time in over 30 years that the gruff personality won’t be a key pillar leading the baseball conversation. Francesa became a fixture on WFAN in 1989, teaming up with Chris “Mad Dog” Russo to create one of the most successful drive-time talk shows of all time. The show became an authoritative voice in one of the largest markets (New York City) with avid sports fans that had a ripple effect and went a long way in shaping the larger national conversation- especially baseball.

Perhaps because of the local Yankees, Mets, and proximity to the Boston Red Sox (or maybe just because he was very, very loud…) Francesa grew to become a larger-than-life sports media personality with a particular “expertise” in all things MLB. Credited with legitimizing talk radio, Francesa won multiple Marconi Awards for his broadcast on the radio, and was simulcast across the country. Nicknamed the “Sports Pope,” his opinions about the baseball season frequently became gospel. Love him or hate him, Francesa’s thoughts and personality became one of the biggest in the game. Now that’s gone, leaving a void for other voices to emerge as the major “thought leaders” generating much of the baseball conversation.  

This is all part of a much larger trend, with many of the major sports media outlets paring back their coverage of America’s Past-time. Longtime staple Fox Sports has shuttered the baseball writing on their website, ESPN has removed many of the biggest names in their baseball department, and Sports Illustrated is pivoting to shorter-form video focused more on entertainment than the game.

New Guy on the Field! (Image via theathletic.com)

That’s created quite an opportunity for new sports-media venture The Athletic to become the authoritative source of MLB coverage and fan conversation. The subscription-based website recently announced that they’re drastically expanding their baseball coverage, assembling an all-star roster bringing together some of the most respected MLB reporters in the industry. Led by Fox Sports main writer, Ken Rosenthal, the site has also added Jayson Stark, formerly of ESPN, and the legendary Peter Gammons to the team, established their own analytics department headed up by Enos Sarris from Fangraphs, and recruited Emma Span from Sports Illustrated to become a veritable powerhouse of baseball writing that will be incredibly interesting to see.

By bringing together so many of the biggest voices from disparate sports media outlets, all with different editorial missions and a particular emphasis, or “flavor,” to their reporting, The Athletic has created a journalistic jambalaya of national baseball coverage positioned to dominate coverage of the game from every angle (traditional stats, stars & stories, advanced sabermetrics, etc.).

Beyond that, the site has established coverage at the local level for 20 of the 30 MLB franchises by bringing on well-established “beat reporters” from those markets with individualized team expertise. That’s positioned The Athletic to merge local and national coverage at an unprecedented level. As Enos Sarris said when reflecting on his decision to join the site, there’s “a real chance for synthesis and original thought, born of a structure unique to this venture;” creating an all-new player in the sports media focused on generating high-quality baseball content.

As traditional outlets and personalities fade to the background, The Athletic could emerge as one-stop shopping for fans of all stripes and colors interested in an analysis of the sport on every level, from every perspective. It’s still only Spring Training, but if all goes as planned, The Athletic may have just established themselves as the “Yankees” of baseball coverage, becoming THE authoritative source of all things MLB.

*Pop Quiz; Holiday Trivia: Who was the first President to throw out the ceremonial “first pitch” on Opening Day?

**Bonus Points: Which former President was once part-owner of an MLB franchise? What was the team?