You could hear the disappointment in the voices of Fox Sports TV World Series broadcasters Joe Buck and Tim McCarver. It was only the bottom of the 3rd inning of World Series Game 1, and much-hyped Texas Ranger starter Cliff Lee was already showing signs of unraveling.
It was unthinkable, but somehow Lee gave up two runs and allowed the San Francisco Giants to tie the game 2-2. This was starting to be an annoying problem, but McCarver and Buck stuck to Fox’s set game script and suggested this was just a bit of a “hiccup” for the otherwise masterful Lee.
Then, complete disaster– for the Rangers and for Fox Sports. With two outs in the bottom of the 5th inning, the Giants took a 5-2 lead in a storm of extra base hits and unceremoniously bounced the untouchable Cliff Lee out of the game. Rangers’ reliever Darren O’Day (or, as broadcaster McCarver renamed him, “Dennis” O’Day), followed Lee, and Giants’ third baseman Juan Uribe immediately tagged him with a three run homer to inflate the score to 8-2 Giants.
After more runs, many errors, and lots of relief pitchers getting into the game, the final score was Giants 11, Texas 7, Fox Sports 0. And San Francisco went up 1-0 to start the best of seven games Series.
Not only Fox Sports but virtually the entire national sports media built the Rangers’ Cliff Lee into seemingly the greatest World Series pitcher in baseball history. What a nice, tidy story line it was going to be watching Lee mow down the rag-tag, scruffy, underachieving San Francisco Giants line-up to start the 2010 World Series. Only, it didn’t happen.
Back on Fox, the often incoherent McCarver was almost apologetic as he and partner Buck scrambled to make sense of things as their carefully pre-scripted game went completely rogue on them. Toward the end of the ballgame, Joe Buck said, only half jokingly, “this goes against everything we talked about in our pre-game analysis… so just don’t listen to us anymore…”. What, and miss all the car wrecks that have made Fox’s World Series TV broadcasts so hilarious the past five years. Not likely.
What is most fascinating about Fox’s build up of the Cliff Lee Story is what they had to leave out of the story to make it work. Sure, Lee had outstanding post season stats before last night’s game against the Giants: 7-0 with a 1.26 ERA in 8 starts the past two years. So far, so good. But Lee’s overall 2010 record was 12-9 with a 3.18 ERA.
Amazingly, after being traded from the Seattle Mariners earlier this year, Lee’s regular season record with Texas was 4-6 with a 3.98 ERA. But for Fox, that kind of negative information wouldn’t fit into the approved story line.
Other than making them look foolish, why does Fox care?
In 2009, Fox Sports paid Major League Baseball $2.5 billion as part of a five year contract to broadcast a variety of games, including the World Series each year. To make a profit on that investment, Fox needs a lot bigger audience than the normal baseball fan demographic; Fox needs to attract millions of casual viewers and sports fans whose only serious exposure to baseball on TV each year is the World Series.
This is the market segment that can dramatically drive MLB TV ratings up in a given year, which means commercial spots the following year can be sold at top dollar, which means Fox makes money. To fully capture that audience, Fox needs to prep that vast, unwashed demographic with a simple, easy to understand story line they can follow. Fox prepped the 2010 audience with the Cliff Lee Story, so when Lee imploded in Game 1, Fox had a confused and scattered casual audience, who may now lose interest and drive the ratings down.
Will Fox attempt to shift the story line to another, easy to understand hyped-up script? Perhaps to those lovable scamps, the San Francisco Giants? Stay tuned.