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What is the Role of Television in the Latest Little League Scandal?

 

A lot of ink and pixels have been spilled during the past week about the scandal involving Chicago’s Jackie Robinson West (JRW) Little League team. If you haven’t learned the specifics by now, JRW annexed parts of three adjacent districts, redrew the map for their own district based on this misapportionment and, most damning of all, backdated the map in an attempt to deceive the officials at Little League International.

Most of the criticism has centered on the adults involved, and that’s certainly appropriate. It’s practically certain that the kids neither initiated nor facilitated the fraud, although they are definitely being held accountable for the misdeed after having been stripped of their championship. As painful as it is for them to be punished for something they did not have a hand in or knowledge of, there is no other real choice. They won their championship with ineligible players because of a fraud carried out by the adults charged with stewarding and mentoring them, and if nothing else, they will hopefully learn that if it is found out that you won by cheating, even inadvertently or unknowingly, the spoils of your victory will be taken away. That’s a good life lesson to learn at that early age, and they will surely never forget it.

What about the adults in all this, though? This same lesson is one they should have themselves learned as children. Maybe they did and maybe they didn’t, but either way, they knowingly perpetrated a fraud, with malice aforethought, for the purposes of maximizing their young players’ chances of achieving ultimate glory. What was in it for the adults?

There are a lot of layers that could probably be peeled from that onion to help explain their motivation, ranging from vicariism to egoism to genuine parental love. There’s another one to consider: the desire to become famous by being on television.

Not every parent or coach or sports official who cheats does so to be on television. We’ve all seen lots of examples of folks cheating “just because”, to seemingly no good or even visible end, and it’s all the more reprehensible to do so by exploiting grade school kids playing a team sport. But here in the media-mad, always-connected, celebrity-obsessed America of the 21st Century, the lure of being on television to a nationwide or even worldwide audience is a powerful motivator that could entice a person, even one who might otherwise not break the rules, to do that very thing in order to appear on television, to become famous, to be interviewed and fawned over and treated like a VIP by everyone around you, if only for a little while. I’m not talking about the kids here. I’m talking about adults who themselves would like to bask in the kids’ glow of achievement. As we all know, that is definitely a thing.

Ethics is almost never a binary yes-no thing, as in “this person is ethical, that person is unethical, and that’s that.” It’s more of a sliding scale, where it is the thing and not the person that is ethical or unethical, and the more powerful the incentive, the larger the reward, the more likely an otherwise upstanding and honest person will be drawn into doing something that’s unethical. And it’s not unreasonable to conclude that the prospect of being on national television is enough to push many normally upstanding citizens closer to the “un” side of the scale.

Make no mistake about it: televising the Little League World Series has become a big deal. The first Little League World Series game was telecast by tape delay in 1962; and until 1985, by which time games were being televised live, it appeared strictly as part of ABC TV’s Wide World of Sports, a series conceived to showcase a panoply of all kinds of sports, great and not so great, from all around the world. Little League baseball was long considered not great enough to be any more than a part of this panoply, and it’s important here to note that it was only the championship game that was being televised each year.

That changed with the dawn of the new millennium. Starting in 2000, televised coverage shifted to ESPN and was expanded to include 12 games. The following year that increased to 25 games, including all eight US regional championships, on the heels of a six-year, seven million dollar deal Little League signed with ABC, the parent company of ESPN. The deal was renewed for eight years and $30.5 million starting in 2006 and was so successful and profitable that the deal was re-upped starting in 2014 for another eight years, this time for $76 million. Last year, a total of 54 Little League games were shown on ESPN, ESPN2 and ABC, including the regionals leading up to the final tournament in Williamsport.

Of course, there’s a reason all this corporate money is flowing into baseball games being played between grade school kids: people watch it. Lots of people. And when there is an especially good story surrounding the teams, the ratings skyrocket, and there have been few stories better than two featured this past year: the JRW team; and a flame-throwing young lady pitcher named Mo’Ne Davis from South Philadelphia. According to a report in Sports Media Watch, television ratings were up +71% overall this year versus 2013, and the championship game between JRW and South Korea pulled +65% more viewers than last year’s final tilt.

With all the money and the exposure come the inevitable questions regarding questionable behavior, if not actual impropriety, by Little League International (LLI) officials in this matter. There are reports that an official of a competing Little League association from suburban Chicago brought the allegations regarding JRW to LLI officials during last summer’s tournament, only to be turned away. LLI officials denied that any misconduct had been engaged in by JRW at that time, and again as late as December, responding only that the team had been built within the rules, until the resulting paper trail made continued denial an untenable position. If their role in this did happen as it’s been was reported, and if we’re being honest with ourselves, it’s easy to understand why LLI might reflexively deny wrongdoing rather than either acknowledging the possibility or staying mum. After all, there was a lot of money on the table they might have jeopardized by publicly addressing these issues while the tournament was still going on.

But isn’t this entire situation reflective of a general cultural shift that seems to have occurred in which anything that can be monetized will be monetized, and that in the service of this ideal nothing is out of bounds or off limits, even our children? Witness in recent years the emergence of high school football and basketball games being nationally televised, not just state championship games but all season long, with schoolboys traveling all over the country (on school nights, in many cases) to play other schoolboys for the benefit of the sports networks and their sponsors. In fact, there was a game on ESPNU between Callaway High School in Mississippi and Dominican High School in Milwaukee, located more than 800 miles away, just this past Saturday. There’s even a website devoted to promoting the best eighth-grade basketball players in the country. The commoditizing of children’s athletics, again, for the benefit of the commercial media and their corporate sponsors has established itself as a mainstream phenomenon.

You can’t blame the kids for wanting to play ball on TV. Who wouldn’t want to do that? That would be super cool! And their enthusiasm for such a possibility should not be surprising, nor should it necessarily be tamped down. But when that same level of enthusiasm spreads inexorably upwards to the adults in their lives—the same adults who are charged with teaching their kids the values of honesty and fair play, but who are also in a position to bend rules and falsify documentation and all the other things that can smooth the way to fulfilling their kids’ dreams of being heroes on TV—it sends a dangerously conflicting message to the kids, and reflects terribly on our culture.

MLB’s Broadcast Monopoly Status Might Be Showing Some Cracks

 

You may have heard by now that a New York federal judge ruled last Friday that MLB’s antitrust exemption does not apply to broadcast rights.  The story gets its best treatment here:

Judge Rules MLB’s Antitrust Exemption Doesn’t Apply to Television Broadcast Rights

This could be a very big deal because currently, MLB controls nearly practically every aspect of the audio and video distribution of its product to the fans who live outside their favorite teams’ designated territories.  This is a right they claim by dint of the antitrust exemption they gained in the Supreme Court ruling Federal Baseball Club of Baltimore v. National League in 1922.  The exemption has long been interpreted by MLB as allowing them to prevent other concerns from delivering this audio and video content as competitors.

Now U.S. District Judge Shira Scheindlin has thrown a monkey wrench into the works by rejecting motions for summary judgements—essentially a dismissal—of a class-action suit brought by a group of fans who maintain that MLB and their constituent clubs are an “illegal cartel” that make “agreements to eliminate competition in the distribution of games over the Internet and television.”  They further contend that MLB, satellite and cable companies collude “to divide the live-game video presentation market into exclusive territories, which are protected by anticompetitive blackouts. Not only are such agreements not necessary to producing baseball contests, they are directed at reducing competition in the live-game video presentation market, involving and protecting third parties who operate only in that separate market.”  Pretty strong stuff, but it does have to be this strong out of the gate to be taken seriously.

Two weeks previosuly, 9th Circuit Court Judge Alex Kozinski wrote an opinion in the suit by the city of San Jose against MLB, for preventing the movement of the Oakland A’s franchise there, that some interpreted as being favorable for maintaining MLB’s out of market broadcast monopoly as well by defining the antitrust exemption on very broad terms, due to the decision made in the Flood v. Kuhn case in 1972 as well as “congressional acquiescence”.  But the ruling by Scheindlin flew in the face of that broad interpretation, carving out an exception for the out of market broadcast rights on the grounds that MLB had not “demonstrated that exceptional circumstances warrant the requested relief” from the class action lawsuit challenging their monopoly out of market delivery status.

What this boils down to at the moment is that there is potentially a sharp disagreement between the Circuit Court level and the District Court level as to how broadly the Antitrust Exemption can be interpreted as applying to MLB’s scope of business.  It’s possible that both these cases could end up at the Supreme Court at some point, but because the out of market broadcast suit is only at the District Court level and in fact has yet to even be certified as a class action suit, which won’t happen until later this month, we are probably looking at several years before a decision favorable to out of market consumers could be made.

The bottom line here is: don’t hold your breath while waiting for lower cost TV, radio and Internet game packages to be offered by companies competing with MLB.  But do keep your eye on what’s happening in Judge Shira Sceindlin’s court room at the Southern District of New York next month.

News Bites for February 2, 2015

To celebrate the end of the American football season with the playing of some championship game or other last night, today’s News Bites will focus heavily on when we can expect to see live Major League baseball games on our TV and radio boxes soon!

Radio, TV, web have Pirates’ spring covered. The Pirates’ Grapefruit League opener is on March 3 against Toronto will air on KDKA-FM, the first of 16 over-the-air radio broadcasts, with the remainder of the games casting on MLB.com.

2015 Yankees spring training schedule. Not a story but an actual schedule, showing that 15 Yankees spring games will air on their YES Network, beginning March 4 against the Phillies.

Washington Nationals Schedule >> Broadcast Information.  Seven Nats spring games will be telecast on MASN starting March 7.

6 Tigers spring training games will be on TV. The Tigers typically air few of their spring games on TV, and this year will be no exception, as Tigers loyalists will have to wait until March 22 to see their heroes take on the Braves.  At least fans can hear 22 games on radio split between 97.1 The Ticket and 1270AM.

BREWERS ANNOUNCE 2015 SPRING TRAINING BROADCAST SCHEDULE.  The Brewers will air eleven spring games on Fox Sports Wisconsin and sixteen on WTMJ-AM 620, with most of the rest casting on Brewers.com.

Jaime Jarrin & Jorge Jarrin new Dodgers Spanish radio team.  The second most amazing thing in this story is that Jaime Jarrin is entering his 57th season as the Dodgers’ Spanish-language radio announcer.  The most amazing thing is that he is still not the longest-tenured broadcaster currently working for the team.

Royals broadcaster Denny Matthews’ new contract ties him to team through 50th season.  And speaking of broadcasting’s Half Century Club*, Denny Matthews will be joining it in the last year of his four-year extended deal with the Royals, which was announced at the team’s FanFest on Saturday night.

 

* – Not an actual club.

IN CASE YOU MISSED IT … PART DEUX

As a follow-up to coming out of hibernation with yesterday’s In Case You Missed It post, which pointed to numerous feature and news articles of various stripes that have been published on the tubes since season’s end, Part Deux will focus on some of the local media moves and renewals that have occurred since then:

Dodgers buy a stake in KLAC (570-AM), renew radio broadcast rights: This can’t possibly go as badly as the SportsNet LA boondoggle, can it?

Don Orsillo Renewed by Red Sox for 2015: One of the sharpest knives in the play by play drawer.  Do BoSox fans know how lucky they are?

Texas Rangers Move Back To 105.3 The Fan: Moved from another local FM station located 2.0 down the dial.

Josh Lewin re-signs with WOR for Mets games: The curse of Harry Caray didn’t torpedo Josh’s career after all, did it?  A good talent who can also do PxP as well.

Jamie Moyer exits Phillies’ broadcast booth: Doesn’t it always sounds suspicious when someone says they’re leaving a job to “spend more time with [his] family”?  But considering the Moyer family lives in California, this time it’s probably true.

Cubs, WGN-Ch. 9 confirm 5-year deal and It’s official: WLS-Ch. 7 to air 25 Cubs games: This is a seemingly odd backwards move towards a network affiliate, but the last years leading up to the presumed dedicated Cubs cable network must march on, fractured though the situation may be.

White Sox’ Hawk Harrelson Won’t Cut Back On 2015 Schedule: Good news for White Sox fans, I presume?

John Sterling, Suzyn Waldman officially back in Yankees’ WFAN booth for 2015: And Yankees fans as well?

McCarver returns to Cards’ TV broadcasts: And Cardinals fans?  Yes?

Orioles return to CBS RADIO’s 105.7 The Fan