Major League Baseball wants to turn its first superstar, New York Yankees slugger Babe Ruth, into TV’s next big anti-hero.
The league is involved in developing a limited TV series about the life of the hard-partying home run king. Director-producer Allen Coulter, whose credits include the gritty HBO hits “The Sopranos” and “Boardwalk Empire,” has been hired by MLB to oversee the project. It’s envisioned as an unrestricted, candid look at Ruth’s raucous times off the field, often driven by his prodigious appetite for booze and women.
Presenting a realistic, flaws-and-all portrait of baseball’s historic icon may seem like a risk for a sport that has sought to maintain its upright image as America’s pastime. But the project is part of an overall push by MLB to get exposure in entertainment genres and platforms that reach younger viewers, who are not watching as much baseball on TV as their parents or grandparents did.
“The goal is to get on as many different screens as possible,” Nick Trotta, senior director of media programming and licensing for Major League Baseball, said in a recent interview. “That means different things today more than ever. There are more types of physical screens but also different types of services and programming genres.”
Baseball continues to be a strong attraction for traditional TV viewing. The average audience of 22.8 million viewers for the 2016 World Series was a 12-year ratings high and the second straight year the event had seen an increase, according to Nielsen. Local MLB games were the top-rated programs on the nights they aired in 12 markets this last season, up from nine in 2016. The Tuesday telecast of Game Three of the National League Championship Series on TBS was the highest-rated Dodgers game in the Los Angeles market since 1998.
But the age of baseball’s TV audience has ticked upward in the last 10 years. Among major team sports, the median age for baseball’s audience was 57 in 2016, up four years from 2006, according to Nielsen. The median age for the NFL is 50, also gaining four years over the same period, while the figure is 42 for the NBA, an increase of two years.
Streaming video is pulling younger viewers away from all of TV, and Major League Baseball has been a significant beneficiary of the trend. MLB’s technology company BAMTech serves a number of video content providers and has been a financial windfall for team owners. In August, the league sold a 42% stake in the unit to Walt Disney Co. for $1.58 billion, which will use it to launch its own sports TV streaming service using the ESPN brand name. Disney had purchased a 33% stake last year for $1 billion.
Streaming is also helping to lift baseball viewing overall. ESPN’s combined audience for TV and streaming of its MLB regular season games rose 6% over 2016. The number of minutes streamed on Turner’s TV coverage of the National League Division Series was up 102% over last year. This last season, the league started offering live games on Facebook, Twitter and Intel True VR, a virtual reality app. Clearly younger fans have gravitated to digital platforms as the median age of the users for MLB At Bat, the league’s app that offers highlights and live streaming video of every game, is 33.
Sports marketing experts say drawing a new generation of fans takes more than an online presence, which is why MLB’s push to expand its presence in other entertainment venues makes sense.
“Nobody is born a baseball fan or a football fan,” said sports media consultant Lee Berke. “They are all blank slates. In the midst of a very competitive marketplace for share of mind, baseball has to be very aggressive in getting new fans signed up.”
Baseball is also battling additional challenges as its lack of a game clock and languid pace is at odds with a generation used to getting non-stop action from highlights and clips on YouTube and other streaming platforms. The average length of a nine-inning game hit 3 hours and 8 minutes this past regular season.
“The sport has never been wealthier, yet you hear about declines in youth participation and viewership,” said Patrick Rishe, director of the sports business program at Washington University in St. Louis. “Anything baseball can do to cater to a younger and more diverse audience is obviously in their best interest. They still have this time of game situation that’s un-resolvable unless they make some drastic changes.”
MLB has implemented rule changes to quicken the pace of the game and is examining ways to do more on that front while it reaches out to new fans.
Trotta said the league is more open than ever to providing its trademarked logos, ballparks and archival footage to non-sports content that caters to contemporary tastes.
The thinking is that featuring a landmark such as the Boston Red Sox historic home field Fenway Park in a movie such as “Stronger,” which tells the story of one of the 2013 Boston Marathon terrorist bombing victims, can give baseball an emotional bond with viewers.
Baseball is even getting its product in front of true crime addicts. The league cooperated fully in the recently released Netflix short “Long Shot,” which tells the twist-filled tale of Juan Catalan, who was arrested and wrongly charged for the 2003 gang-related murder of a 16-year-old girl outside of her home in Sun Valley. Catalan’s alibi was that he was attending a game with his daughter at Dodger Stadium, eventually proven by an outtake of Larry David’s HBO series “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” which filmed on location there the same night.
The league was also involved in the production of “Let’s Play Two,” a documentary film about rock group Pearl Jam’s 2016 concerts at Wrigley Field, home of the Chicago Cubs, who last year won their first World Series since 1908. Lead singer Eddie Vedder’s lifelong devotion to the team is featured prominently in the film, which is showing in theaters and will be offered for streaming on Amazon Prime starting Nov. 2.
Last year, the league partnered with Awesomeness TV — a digital network that appeals to young women — on a scripted digital series called “Out of My League,” a teen love story set in Dodger Stadium that included a cameo by Dodgers outfielder Joc Pederson. The series drew more than 9 million views. The league is also creating original content for Mitú, a digital network that targets young Latinos.
While turning to Babe Ruth, who played in the 1920s, is a throwback to the game’s storied past, Trotta believes the creative freedom that TV currently offers can present him as the kind of difficult, complicated character that younger audiences are drawn to on premium cable channels and streaming services such as Netflix.
“There are things in Ruth’s life that really resonate today,” Trotta said. “The best stories need to be told over and over as tastes change.”