STEPPING UP: My Take: Baseball-centered region without regularly televised baseball

Published 12:11 pm Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Certain sports are more dominant in certain regions. It’s an audacious statement, but undeniable in terms of its accuracy. Canada has hockey, the Deep South has its high-powered SEC football, every kid from the New York-New Jersey area was raised kicking a soccer ball and, from an in-state perspective, west of Raleigh is saturated in a heavy dose of college basketball.

It’s different here in the east. In the spring, along with the NCAA tournament, America’s pastime takes center stage.

Even at the collegiate level, ECU manager Billy Godwin says he focuses the majority of his recruiting locally, simply because the area is so rich with talent. The sports’ popularity shows in the stands as well. Attend a Pirate baseball game, regardless of whether the team is winning or losing, and you’ll likely see a densely packed Clark-LeClair Stadium.

On the other hand, switch on cable television Saturday afternoon and there’s a good chance you’ll find three channels playing Law & Order marathons, but none playing a major league game.

In fact, 2007 marked the last of the regularly televised Atlanta Braves games on TBS, a universal cable station, which originally contributed to the team’s popularity in N.C. The Chicago Cubs and White Sox currently have a deal with WGN that allows their games to be televised nationally, but I doubt baseball fans in this area (or any area for that matter) are ready or willing to jump on either one of those bandwagons.

Sure you can find the occasional game on ESPN or Fox, however, they air a largely random assortment of games.

So, why has Major League Baseball abandoned such a prime baseball market, and will it ever return to the region?

Basically, the Braves, who are in the midst of a 20-year contract that gives them just $10-20 million per season, are constrained by arguably one of the worst deals in TV history, and the team is far from returning to N.C.

With the next closest team, the Nationals, receiving “national” attention over the last few seasons – largely due to their 21-year-old phenom Bryce Harper and the team’s recent success – one must ask the question: Is there a place for the Nationals in eastern N.C.’s cable television market?

Washington currently splits coverage with Baltimore Orioles on the Mid-Atlantic Sports Network (available on DirectTV in this area). Geographically, it’s a concept that makes sense at first glance, except the Nats are being short-changed in the deal. According to the Baltimore Business Journal, both Washington and Baltimore are “mired in a dispute over a television deal that heavily favors the Orioles.” A deal consummated in 2006, the Birds receive significantly more money and coverage than the Nats from MASN.

With legal problems likely on the horizon, there’s a chance Washington could break off entirely and shop for a new, independent deal.

The idea of Nationals games being aired in eastern N.C., as well as Washington, is tantalizing, but slim at the same time.

Nevertheless, it could muster a new fan base consisting of younger fans, and create an in-state MLB rivalry between the Braves fans of pre-2007 and the Nationals fans of today. With a talented, youthful squad and World Series expectations, airing Nats games in this region is a formula for success and could prove highly profitable.

Whatever happens, it’s a shame Major League Baseball is mostly absent from a region immersed in its culture and tradition, especially because N.C. is home to Minor League Baseball’s perennial powerhouse, the Durham Bulls. Without an MLB team within 250 miles and an area without regularly televised baseball, could we be witnessing the beginning of the end of people’s interest in a team, or maybe even a sport entirely? Lets hope not.