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ESPN’s ratings gamble on A-Rod isn’t working so far

ESPN’s ratings gamble on A-Rod isn’t working so far

There was a time in Alex Rodriguez’s career when some of his major league contemporaries reportedly called him “The Cooler.” The moniker was slapped on Rodriguez’s back because no matter how much personal glory he found, he had a tendency to be on teams that underperformed.

ESPN is smitten with its new face of “Sunday Night Baseball,” but, in a bottom-line business, the scoreboard is ratings. “Sunday Night Baseball’s” A-Rod-led reboot is down 18 percent from year to year at a little past the quarter mark of its 25-game schedule.

While ESPN executives remain confident they will rebound and offered reasonable explanations as to why, the early returns on whether there would be more interest in watching “SNB” because of A-Rod are in, and the answer so far is clearly no.

While broadcasters can enhance the viewers’ experience, it is clear they don’t bring people to their TVs for games. A-Rod has been solid, but not spectacular, on “SNB.”

ESPN’s Sunday game is very produced, so much of what Rodriguez says sounds planned, allowing him to speak less off the cuff. He makes some good points, but he needs to trust himself a little more and try to be more natural.

“SNB” wants to stand out, but of all ESPN’s major properties, it probably has the most difficult task because in the preceding days, the exact same games are offered in local markets — and many times on Fox nationally on Saturday — making it next to impossible.

Still, the numbers are the numbers. Through seven games, “Sunday Night Baseball” is down from averaging 1.91 million viewers at this time last year to 1.56M this season. ESPN has had some bad luck since A-Rod joined, as a Cubs-Cardinals game’s ratings were smothered by a rain delay, while games in Washington and Houston happened to go up against NBA playoff games in those markets.

Through the first quarter of last year, the Cubs, off their championship, had been on twice already. The Yankees and Red Sox did not appear at this point last year or so far this year. Those games are usually ESPN’s great elixir, as the three rivalry matchups averaged 2.3M compared to 1.64M for all the other games last season.

Meanwhile, Rodriguez continues to turn his baseball transgressions into a commodity. After Rodriguez lied, cheated and sued throughout his career, ESPN is assisting in making that into something to capitalize on. His new show is called “Pivot with Alex Rodriguez.” The show’s concept is that A-Rod will talk to people who have messed up, just like he did. Rodriguez is an executive producer on the program, which will only have four shows.

If ESPN really wants to leverage A-Rod’s clout, it should have him entice his buddy Robinson Cano for an exclusive interview to talk about his PED-masking-drug suspension. It might be a bit awkward, but it could be good TV.


Jimmy PitaroKaty Winn/Invision/AP

Quick Clicks: ESPN’s new president, Jimmy Pitaro, declined to give out any figures for the company’s new premium offering, ESPN+. It doesn’t necessarily mean anything good or bad, because the product was only launched a month ago. What ESPN appears to have gotten right is how the technology feels seamless in the app. The fluidity of the experience is very important. Now, on the content side, rival executives expect Pitaro to buy as many rights to as many different things as possible. He already did a deal for UFC, trying to appeal to its younger audience.


The best analysts tell you something insightful, but in a relatable way. During Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals, Jeff Van Gundy said the Cavaliers roll their eyes at each other like a couple having marital issues. It was a good way to say Cleveland was not on the same page.


It was pretty amazing that CBS won the overall TV ratings this past year, even though NBC had the Olympics and the Super Bowl.


Speaking of the Super Bowl, Tony Romo will finally make it. CBS has the game early next year, so Romo will be the analyst with Jim Nantz on Super Sunday.


CC Sabathia has left Derek Jeter for LeBron James. Sabathia and his podcast co-host, ESPN/YES’ Ryan Ruocco, have moved “R2C2” to James’ Uninterrupted network from Jeter’s Players’ Tribune. Sabathia had some video projects already with Uninterrupted, so the duo thought it would be a better fit for them, Ruocco said.


The Funhouse Twitter feed is coming back. The feed that tracks Mike Francesa’s contradictions was shut down by WFAN’s parent, Entercom. At least social media-wise, Francesa’s show has really not had much buzz without Funhouse. Funhouse, whose author is unknown, said he will be back June 4 after assurances that Entercom won’t sue him for copyright infringement.

Francesa, with great fanfare, announced he was going to start tweeting himself, which Wall Street Journal columnist Jason Gay perfectly summarized in a tweet: “Francesa is treating the launch of a Twitter account in 2018 like it’s a Mission to Mars.” Steve Somers returned to WFAN this week.

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