ESPN Major League Baseball is a promotion of Major League Baseball on ESPN and ESPN2. ESPN's MLB coverage debuted on April 9, 1990 with three Opening Day telecasts. ESPN Major League Baseball is guaranteed to remain on air until 2021. Starting in 2014, ESPN will return to broadcasting postseason baseball. ESPN has rights to any potential tiebreaker games (Game 163) and one of the two wild card games (Turner Sports receiving the other game).
The different weekly regular-season packages that ESPN presents (as of 2014) are Sunday Night Baseball, Monday Night Baseball and Wednesday Night Baseball. The network also airs select games on Opening Day, Memorial Day, Independence Day, and Labor Day.
In addition to regular-season games, ESPN also airs several spring training games per year, the Taco Bell All-Star Legends and Celebrity Softball Game and Home Run Derby played the week of the All-Star Game, and (as of 2014) one of the two Wild Card games each postseason. ESPN also airs a weekly highlight show called Baseball Tonight at 7 p.m. ET on Sundays as a lead-in to Sunday Night Baseball; previously it was a daily program until 2017, when layoffs cut back the show’s airing to Sundays.
ESPN Radio has also been airing Major League Baseball since 1998 (succeeding CBS Radio), broadcasting Sunday Night Baseball as well as select other regular-season games, the All-Star Game and Home Run Derby, and the entire postseason including the Wild Card Game, Division Series, League Championship Series, and World Series.
Since ESPN first received MLB telecast rights, it has become traditional for the network to make an effort to cover live historic moments in the sport. For example, in 2007, ESPN and ESPN2 added several telecasts when Barry Bonds chased Hank Aaron's record for most home runs in a MLB career. ESPN had the national telecasts on August 4 when Bonds tied Aaron with number 755 and on August 7, 2007 when he hit number 756. ESPN was also the broadcaster of the final game at the original Yankee Stadium as a part of Sunday Night Baseball with Jon Miller and Hall of Famer Joe Morgan. It also showed Chris Burke's 18th-inning homer to end the 2005 NLDS.
Also, the network has been given permission to interrupt regular programming, when allowed, to show attempts at new records or significant milestones live. Examples include three cut-ins from its coverage of the first X Games in 1995 until Eddie Murray recorded his 3000th hit, live coverage of Sammy Sosa's 600th home run in 2007, and a number of no-hitters, including the Buchholz feat mentioned earlier. Although it cannot show any historic attempts live during the Fox or TBS exclusive windows, it was allowed to show an in-progress highlight of Alex Rodriguez's 500th career home run in August 2007, as this was on a Saturday afternoon before Fox went on the air with its game coverage.
On January 5, 1989, Major League Baseball signed a $400 million deal with ESPN, who would show over 175 games beginning in 1990. For the next four years, ESPN would televise six games a week (Sunday Night Baseball, Wednesday Night Baseball and doubleheaders on Tuesdays and Fridays), as well as multiple games on Opening Day, Memorial Day, Independence Day, and Labor Day.
On April 15, 1990, ESPN's Sunday Night Baseball debuted with the experienced play-by-play announcer Jon Miller joining retired Hall of Fame player Joe Morgan in the broadcast booth. In its first year, Sunday Night Baseball averaged a 3.0 rating. That was double the number that ESPN as a whole was averaging at the time (1.5). By 1998, ESPN enjoyed its largest baseball audience ever (a 9.5 Nielsen rating) as Mark McGwire hit his 61st home run of the season. When ESPN first broadcast Sunday Night Baseball, they would show at least one game from every ballpark. Also, every team was guaranteed an appearance. It was essentially, the television equivalent to a cross country stadium tour.
In 1994, ESPN renewed its baseball contract for six years (through the 1999 season). The new deal was worth $42.5 million per year and $255 million overall. The deal was ultimately voided after the 1995 season and ESPN was pretty much forced to restructure their contract. In 1995, ESPN broadcast the American League West tie-breaker game between the Seattle Mariners and California Angels with Jon Miller and Joe Morgan making the call.
In 1996, ESPN began a five-year contract with Major League Baseball worth $440 million and about $80 million per year. ESPN paid for the rights to a Wednesday night doubleheader and Sunday Night Baseball, as well as Opening Day and holiday telecasts and all postseason games not aired on Fox or NBC. Major League Baseball staggered the times of first-round games to provide a full-day feast for viewers: ESPN could air games at 1 p.m., 4 p.m., and 11 p.m. EDT, with the broadcast networks telecasting the prime time game.
In 1998, ESPN broadcast the National League Wild Card tie-breaker game between the Chicago Cubs and San Francisco Giants. Jon Miller and Joe Morgan were on the call. In 1999, ESPN broadcast the National League Wild Card tie-breaker game (this time between the New York Mets and Cincinnati Reds) once again with Jon Miller and Joe Morgan once again on the call.
ESPN and ESPN2 had contracts (which were signed in 2000 and ran through 2005) to show selected weeknight and Sunday Night Baseball games, along with Opening Day and holiday games and selected Division Series playoff games. The contracts with ESPN were worth $141.8 million per year and $851 million overall.
After Disney bought Fox Family (who from 2000–2001 aired Thursday night games) in 2002 to become ABC Family the Division Series games aired on ABC Family (with ESPN's announcers, graphics, and music) for one year. ESPN then added these games, along with the Thursday night games (subsequently shifted to weekday afternoon "DayGame" broadcasts), to its package.
OLN was briefly considering picking up the rights to the Sunday and Wednesday games, which expired after the 2005 season. On September 14, 2005 however, ESPN, then the current rights holder, signed an eight-year contract with Major League Baseball, highlighted by the continuation of ESPN's Sunday Night Baseball series with additional, exclusive team appearances. The key details of the agreement were:
The weekday afternoon "DayGame" telecasts that ESPN and ESPN2 had previously aired were eliminated in the new pact, along with the late (10 p.m. ET) Wednesday night game (although ESPN can elect to show a late game instead of an early one should it so desire), and the coverage of Memorial Day, Independence Day, and Labor Day games (except for games that fall under the regular Monday-night slot).
ESPN's Monday and Wednesday telecasts remain mostly nonexclusive, meaning the games also can be televised by each club's local broadcasters. In fact, Wednesday games are blacked out on ESPN unless a participating team's local broadcaster does not choose to televise the game. The Sunday games remain on ESPN only, and with ESPN losing the rights to Sunday Night Football telecasts, it looks likely that Sunday Night Baseball will run uninterrupted on ESPN throughout the season, except on Opening Night (when it will air on ESPN2, since it usually conflicts with the NCAA Women's Basketball Final Four).
Alternate telecasts for home-team markets which are blacked out have also been phased out, either in an effort to save costs or in an effort to allocate more satellite space for high-definition broadcasts on ESPNHD. Those who get ESPN via cable get ESPNEWS instead, and those who get the channel via satellite see a blank picture and a blackout notice.
MLB will receive, on average, $296 million a year under the new agreement, a television and a baseball official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because of a confidentiality agreement in the deal. ESPN will pay baseball $273.5 million in 2006, $293.5 million in each of the following four years, $308.5 million in 2011 and $306 million in each of the final two seasons.
On July 25, 2006, Harold Reynolds was fired from ESPN. The ESPN spokeswoman confirmed that Reynolds "is no longer with the network" but did not give a reason for the departure. "Three people who work at ESPN and familiar with the case said the cause was a pattern of sexual harassment." Reynolds confirmed that an accusation of sexual harassment was the reason for his departure but called it "a total misunderstanding" and that "I gave a woman a hug and I felt like it was misinterpreted. In February 2008, ESPN and Reynolds reached an out-of-court settlement.
Weeks later, Peter Gammons was sidelined with a brain aneurysm. Gammons returned to ESPN in early September. The play-by-play commentators for ESPN DayGame were Gary Thorne or Jon Sciambi, along with Steve Phillips, and Steve Stone as color analysts. The program was sponsored by Fruit of the Loom in 2006. The game generally aired on Wednesday or Thursday. The final game to date was aired on September 30, 2006.
ESPN telecasts in 2006, posted an average of 1,115,000 household impressions, up 27% when compared to 2005's 875,000. The corresponding 1.2 rating this year marks a 20% increase over the 1.0 average in 2005. ESPN2's baseball telecasts have averaged 704,000 households, an increase of 34% over 2005's 525,000. Ratings on ESPN2 went up 33% (0.8 vs. 0.6).
After the 2006 Division Series, ESPN lost the rights to broadcast playoff games on TV. All postseason games, from possible one-game playoffs to the World Series, have aired on Fox Sports and TBS since 2007. Games remained on ESPN Radio. ESPN also lost rights to ESPN DayGame presented by Fruit of the Loom and Thursday Night Baseball powered by Castrol.
With the new deal coming into play this year, several things changed with the Monday and Wednesday night games in particular. For Monday Night Baseball, the telecast will now co-exist with teams' local carriers up to three times per year, up from two times in previous years. Wednesday Night Baseball also changed slightly. Now, in addition to the featured game that night, they will also have some live cut-ins to other games across the nation and discuss some the hot topics in the major leagues.
On April 1, for the season-opening game between the New York Mets and the St. Louis Cardinals, ESPN changed its on-screen graphics to the version that debuted with Monday Night Football in 2006 and was later adopted by its NBA coverage at the start of the 2006-07 season. The previous graphics dated back to the advent of ESPN HD in 2004.
During the week of the All-Star Game, Baseball Tonight and SportsCenter did not travel to the game site as it normally does; the 2007 site was AT&T Park in San Francisco. The reason was that MLB stripped ESPN of its on-site credentials for its studio crew as punishment for leaking the rosters of the All-Star teams before TBS did. TBS' announcement, which was billed as exclusive, was scheduled for 4 p.m. Eastern time but was delayed for nearly two hours, by which point ESPN, in apparent violation of its contract with MLB, went ahead and revealed the rosters anyway. ESPN later agreed to promote playoff coverage on TBS and Fox (alongside its own radio coverage) in return for Baseball Tonight going on the air shortly after each night's games concluded.
ESPN2 showed the season-opening games in Tokyo between the Red Sox and the Oakland Athletics. Unfortunately, due to a transponder failure, viewers on DirecTV reliant on the standard-definition feed missed the first of the two games. (ESPNHD was unaffected.)
On May 4, ESPN introduced enhanced updates targeting viewers who play fantasy baseball. It shows season batting statistics for the current batter on each potential count and updates batting average and other selected stats after the at-bat concludes.
Starting with the April 3 season opener between the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox, ESPN began using the same graphics package which debuted with Monday Night Football in 2009. The score banner was converted to a score box in the bottom right hand corner of the screen. And instead of numbers to represent the balls, strikes and outs, dots were represented for each: three green dots for balls, two yellow dots for strikes, and two red dots for outs. The pitch count was also introduced, adopted from the New York Yankees' broadcasts on the YES Network, as well as NESN for the Boston Red Sox. College baseball and softball broadcasts, however, continued to use the previous (2007) graphics for the 2010 College World Series telecasts. ESPN's coverage of the Little League World Series also retained the 2007 graphics until midway through, and then adopted the current (2010) graphics package.
The ESPN Major League Baseball score box was slightly modified beginning with the opening day game between the Detroit Tigers and the New York Yankees. Numbers indicating the ball, strike and out counts replace the dots used last year; the out dots were adopted by Fox Sports Net on their local broadcasts as well as Major League Baseball on Fox. The pitch speed and count are now fixed below the bases graphic. Also, the area around the bases graphic and ball, strike, and out counter is slightly translucent.
Beginning with the Sunday Night Baseball interleague game between the New York Yankees and the Chicago Cubs on June 19, the graphics were slightly adjusted to fit in with the 16:9 aspect ratio for HD broadcasts, similar to what Fox Saturday Baseball, Root Sports and Fox Sports Net have done for their baseball coverage. TBS would follow suit in adjusting their graphics to the 16:9 aspect ratio.
The score box and other graphics were carried over from 2011, but a new logo for all ESPN MLB presentations was unveiled at the start of the season. The ESPN logo is fixed on a CGI baseball, with the words 'Major League Baseball' (or Baseball Tonight and Sunday, Monday or Wednesday Night Baseball) in a stylized neon light surrounding it. A 2-D version is also used on print ads or on secondary program IDs. The graphics would stay virtually the same for the next three seasons.
On August 28, Major League Baseball and ESPN agreed to an eight-year, $5.6 billion contract extension, the largest broadcasting deal in Major League Baseball history. It gives ESPN up to 90 regular-season games, one of the two Wild Card games which will rotate between American League and National League teams each year, and the rights to all regular-season tiebreaker games.
For the 2015 season, ESPN introduced a new on-air appearance for baseball. Among its changes were a new, persistent K-Zone Live graphic, consisting of a faded white rectangle that is overlaid live atop the strike zone on the home plate camera angle at all times. A new K-Zone 3D graphic, with ball trails and a three-dimensional box representing the strike zone, can also be used during replays. The new live K-Zone graphic was criticized by viewers and the media for being potentially distracting, drawing comparisons to baseball video games and Fox's "glowing puck" from its NHL coverage.
For the 2018 season, ESPN’s new scorebug is now in the upper left corner and incorporates both teams’ records (beginning on April 8), freeing up more space at the bottom of the screen for full-slab graphics. Furthermore, new logos and graphics were introduced across ESPN’s MLB coverage. The new score bug used resembles that of ESPN’s NBA coverage.
Through the years, ESPN has enhanced its Major League Baseball coverage with the introduction and implementation of innovative technology. Which include: