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MLB looks for audience lift in reformatted Draft

MLB commissioner Rob Manfred overseeing last year's First-Year Player Draft (Getty Images)

  • Annual event cut from typical 40 rounds to five amid pandemic
  • Team personnel will stay in their respective markets
  • Remote-based TV production will resemble NFL, WNBA Drafts

Major League Baseball initially had some very big plans for the 2020 First-Year Player Draft.

After a decade of staging the Draft on-site at MLB Network studios in Secaucus, New Jersey, the league was set to move it this year to Omaha, Nebraska, site of the NCAA’s College World Series, and give the event that historically existed deep in the shadows of comparable Drafts for the National Football League and National Basketball Association a far greater spotlight.

Then the Covid-19 pandemic hit. 

Because of the resulting economic and societal impacts from the public health crisis, the 2020 Draft, set for June 10-11, has been slashed from its customary 40 rounds to a mere five. The event is also shifting to a remote format where only MLB commissioner Rob Manfred and key operations personnel will be in Secaucus, while team executives will all make their picks from their respective markets.

Despite those changes, MLB is still aiming for an entirely new level of prominence for the Draft that drove the original Omaha-based plan. Both the NFL and Women’s National Basketball Association saw significant surges in viewership for their virtual Drafts amid the ongoing dearth in live sports competition. 

And given the MLB Draft now represents the first public-facing happening of any type for the league since the beginning of the pandemic-imposed hiatus in March, the event even after the recent changes to realign and truncate the format is poised for similar audience growth.

MLB Network will again lead television coverage of the Draft, as it has since its 2009 debut. But league media partner ESPN is also involved for the first time since 2008, and will produce its own coverage for the first round and competitive balance round on June 10 for the main ESPN network, and then will show rounds 2-5 the following day on ESPN2. 

“We’re certainly hopeful of seeing a large TV audience,” says Morgan Sword, MLB executive vice-president of baseball economics and operations. “We’re definitely excited about ESPN’s involvement, and have planned a number of enhancements to the broadcasts.”

Ownership Trade-offs

The MLB Draft since its 1965 formation has faced a decidedly uphill challenge compared its NFL and NBA counterparts. High school and college baseball players that make up the pool of MLB Draftees don’t enjoy the massive national media exposure given to college basketball and football players before they join the NBA and NFL. And when the baseball players are selected, they each then typically require several years of toiling in the minor leagues before reaching the majors, and more time before achieving any sort of stardom. Conversely, football and basketball are replete with stories of rookie stars making sizable impacts upon their teams just months after being drafted.

Those factors help explain why the start of the 2019 MLB Draft averaged 304,000 viewers on the MLB Network, a mere fraction of the average US audience of 6.1m viewers the NFL Draft generated last year, and the average viewership of 3.09m for the NBA Draft in 2019.

MLB’s Omaha-based plan, formally announced last December, was designed in part to close that gap. But when the pandemic hit the US in force in March, the league and MLB Players Association struck a deal to cover numerous related issues that contained several trade-offs.

As part of that agreement, the league gained the ability to cut the size of the Draft, which it exercised. The cutback will eliminate nearly $30m (€27m) in total signing bonus money that would have been paid to lower-round draft picks. And the bonuses for the remaining Draft selections will also be significantly deferred over the next two years. Teams can sign unlimited numbers of undrafted players for a maximum signing bonus of $20,000 each.

“We sought to make some trade-offs between still getting the very best amateur players into the system as soon as possible while limiting some of the club’s [financial] exposure,” Sword says. 

The cutbacks drew widespread criticism from player agents, many of whom represent emerging baseball talent, who argued the move could damage the development and growth of baseball at large. And though lower-round Draft selections statistically have not made as much of an aggregate impact upon MLB, Baseball Hall of Famers John Smoltz, Ryne Sandberg, and Mike Piazza were each selected in or after the 20th round, and many former All-Stars and Most Valuable Players were also found within the lower rounds of the Draft.

“Particularly given the negligible economic impact to what’s already a cheap acquisition cost [for talent], that approach is grossly shortsighted,” said Jeff Berry, co-head of CAA Baseball, last month to the Associated Press regarding the shortened format. “To drastically reduce opportunity and talent and talent pools, it stunts growth and diversity at all levels and is really a self-inflicted sabotage of the long-term health and popularity of the game.”

Sword, however, said this year’s Draft format is just for 2020, and that he believes top athletes will still gravitate to baseball. But MLB can cap next year’s Draft at 20 rounds, still half the level of prior levels. And the league is still pressing forward on related efforts to dramatically overhaul the affiliated minor leagues.

“We are confident that baseball will continue to be an attractive career option for top talent,” he says. “We will have some players, though, that elect this year to go to college or otherwise defer their entrance into [professional baseball].”

What is also unknown at present is what MLB Draft picks will do after being selected, or where they will do it. With MLB and the MLBPA still locked in tense negotiations over the components of a resumed 2020 season, and the entire Minor League Baseball season also hanging in limbo, the league has not determined what will become of those picks this summer.

“Right now, they’re not reporting anywhere,” Sword says. “We don’t know yet what, if any, development activity we’ll be able to do with them in the short-term.”

Arizona State first baseman Spencer Torkelson is widely expected to be selected first overall in the 2020 MLB Draft by the Detroit Tigers (Photo by John Korduner/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Reimagined Broadcast

Manfred won’t be announcing the first-round selections from his home, like his NFL counterpart Roger Goodell did in April in his basement, and Manfred certainly won’t be as casually dressed as the sweater- and then T-shirt-clad Goodell was. But in many other respects, the production of MLB Draft will look a lot like those for both the NFL and WNBA during the earlier stages of the pandemic. 

MLB Network will have video access to more than two dozen Draft hopefuls, and much like the NFL did before, has sent remote camera equipment to each of those future prospects with instructions on how to set it up and link up with the event production. The channel will also have access to each of the 30 clubs, with many of the individual team executives set to appear from their homes. And much like the NFL and WNBA productions, those elements will provide an enhanced level of intimacy for viewers. 

MLB Network and ESPN sportscaster Matt Vasgersian will announce the day two Draft selections covering rounds 2-5. 

Executives from the MLB Network were in close contact with their NFL counterparts over the past two months, and praised their helpfulness as the MLB Draft has approached.

“The NFL and the whole sports community has been very transparent about best practices and lessons learned,” said Susan Stone, MLB Network senior vice-president of operations and engineering. “We certainly talked to them, and ESPN also had the experience of working on the NFL Draft, but we ended up coming up with a solution internally with our [information technology] and infrastructure teams to aggregate all of these streams and bringing them in house.”

Stone also says the entire breadth of the pandemic and its social distancing requirements have already refocused much of what the MLB Network had been doing from a production standpoint.

“The past 12 weeks doing our shows virtually and having a lot of our announcers and talent at home has really teed us up and made us rethink a lot of different workflows,” she says. “That put us in a good place to do something like this for the Draft.”

Marc Weiner, MLB Network coordinating producer, says he is particularly eager to see the network showcase the sport’s initial major event since the arrival of the public health crisis put the entire 2020 season to date on hold.

“This is really the first event that everybody gets to see from baseball this season,” Weiner says. “It’s a big day for us on the calendar.”

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