King Kaufman’s Sports Daily

Which must-see game did you watch? Baseball fans shouldn't have to choose in the playoffs. Plus: NFL picks and NHL Armageddon.

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Baseball and its TV networks, ESPN and Fox, go to great lengths to avoid early games in the four Division Series from being played at the same times, even taking the drastic step of scheduling a day off after Game 1 of one of the series to ensure that no more than three games are played on any weekday and no Games 1 or 2 are played opposite each other.

But later in the first round, potential clinching games are scheduled at the same time. The third and fourth games of the Yankees-Twins series last weekend were scheduled opposite the fourth and (unplayed) fifth game of the Giants-Marlins series.

And now comes the League Championship Series, when no more than two games a day are being played, and those games are more important, and they’re going on at the same time. Wednesday night, Game 2 of the NLCS between the Marlins and Cubs was opposite Game 1 of the ALCS between the Red Sox and Yankees. One of the games was shunted off to cable affiliate FX, which one depending on region.

This won’t happen again this year. If games are played in both series on the other days with potential conflicts — Saturday, Sunday and next Wednesday — one of them will be in the afternoon.

Fox, which sets starting times in conjunction with Major League Baseball, says that offering both Wednesday games in prime time meant more people got a chance to see them. Dan Bell, vice president of communications at Fox Sports, said that when Fox took over the LCS it found that ratings were low for afternoon games early in the series. “The early games at 4 Eastern were sometimes averaging as low as a 4 rating,” he said. By way of comparison, Bell said Monday night’s A’s-Red Sox Divisional Series Game 5 had an 8.5 rating. “The research shows the ratings are 26 percent higher in prime time for LCS games than they are in the afternoon, and the audience level is 53 percent higher, meaning 53 percent more people are home at night.”

The thinking changes next week.

“If there’s two games next week, one would be a Game 6 in the American League and the other would be a Game 7 in the National League,” Bell said, “and people are going to watch it even if it’s during the day.”

Either way baseball and the network go, they’re going to hear about it from fans. “We’ve gotten several complaints this morning from fans who may not get FX,” Matt Gould of MLB said Wednesday, but he said baseball would “absolutely” be getting complaints from people who work or go to school during the day if one of the games were on in the afternoon.

I understand the scheduling decision. It’s hard to argue that a policy that allows more people to see the two games, total, is unfriendly to the fans.

But it’s not impossible. Reader Jon Simmons put it better than I’d planned to: “Can you imagine the NFL, NBA, even NHL setting themselves up with a TV contract that would allow viewers to see either an NFC or AFC playoff game but not both? An Eastern or a Western Conference Final game? Oh yeah, I get FX too so I can switch back and forth, or better yet have Fox swoop in and take me there for ‘look-ins’ or show me processed highlights, but where’s the palm-sweating, stomach-turning, wake-the-neighbors-tirading drama in that?”

Fox and baseball made the right call by scheduling games in the daytime next week, whether the decision is good for business or not. A pennant might be decided, and fans shouldn’t have to choose, or channel-surf, between games. Sure, some people get shut out because they’re at work. I’ve been among those people many a year. But part of the magic of the baseball postseason is daytime games during the week, sneaking a listen to the radio or a peek at a nearby TV or, nowadays, a webcast. Or better yet, playing hooky.

I understand the business argument, but even early in the League Championship Series, games shouldn’t be played at the same time.

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NFL Week 5: Better [PERMALINK]

I did a little better with my NFL picks last week, rebounding from my 6-8 Week 4 debacle to go 9-5 and bring my record to a still-mediocre 41-33. I would have gone 10-4 if not for a typo. I picked the Dolphins to beat the Giants, but made a mistake and capitalized the name of the wrong team.

If you read the paragraph, you’ll see it’s clear — well, as clear as I get — that I thought the Dolphins were going to win: “The Dolphins can’t survive the season by giving the ball to Ricky Williams 40 times a game, but after a week off they can survive this game.” But fair is fair. I had the Giants in all caps and that was nobody’s mistake but mine, so I should pay for it. It’s kind of like how a golfer who mis-tallies his score has to keep the incorrect total. It’s actually not like that at all, but I’m contractually obligated to mention golf once a year, and that was it.

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And not only that, but if the world champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers, with the best defense in the history of the NFL, so they’re fond of saying, hadn’t blown a three-touchdown lead in the last four minutes on Monday night against the Colts, and I hadn’t made that typo, I’d have been 11-3. And if the Bucs hadn’t blown that lead, I hadn’t made that typo, and the other three losing teams I picked (Seahawks, Titans, Steelers) had won, I’d have been 14-0. Let’s have a little respect!

I do have one thing to crow about. My What the Heck Pick™ of the week, the Bears over the Raiders, was correct! It was my first successful What the Heck Pick™, making this a great time for a certain hamburger chain whose slogan is very much like “What the Heck, Eating Our Burgers Is Better Than Starving” — and might actually be that if not for truth in advertising laws — to come through with a six-figure sponsorship of the Sports Daily.

With Cincinnati, Detroit and San Diego idle this week, my What the Heck Pick™ options are limited, which helped me last week. I was sort of forced to take the Bears, though from this point forward I’m going to deny ever admitting that and blame this entire paragraph on hackers.

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Armageddon 2004? [PERMALINK]

If you’re not already a fan of NHL hockey, now’s not the time to become one. The league’s collective bargaining agreement with its players union is set to expire in September and a work stoppage is almost certain. Hockey fans and observers have taken to referring to what will follow as “Armageddon 2004.”

The NHL is the only major professional sports league in America without salary controls, and commissioner Gary Bettman says he wants “cost certainty,” by which he means a hard salary cap. He says the league’s 30 teams lost $300 million last year, and that the average salary of $1.79 million means teams are paying players 76 percent of revenues. The NHL Players Association says it will make concessions if necessary, but won’t agree to payroll limits.

So just about everyone who has an opinion has the opinion that there’s going to be a lockout next summer, and nobody knows what that will mean in the future. Maybe the league and the union will work it out after a stoppage of some length. That happened in 1994-95, when a three-month lockout delayed the start of the season until January — making it the only hockey season in recent memory that didn’t feel like it was three months too long.

On the other hand, the lockout or strike might be so long and destructive that the NHL as we know it may cease to exist. At the very least, there’s a real possibility of an entire season or more being wiped out, and that means contending teams are taking a live-for-today, win-now stance. And considering the playoff runs of the Anaheim Mighty Ducks and Minnesota Wild last spring, almost every team considers itself a contender.

As baseball fans were reminded last year, labor problems, which are boring enough in your own industry, are intolerably uninteresting in someone else’s. But given the tedium of a normal NHL regular season, an 82-game slog that eliminates fewer than half of the teams, the league may have actually hit upon a way to make those winter games seem exciting. Compared to labor negotiation news, a Wednesday night Devils-Sabres scrum in February will seem like naked supermodels knife-fighting in Jell-O.

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