When commissioner Bud Selig announced the No. 7 selection of the 2009 Major League Baseball draft, the Braves' pick of Vanderbilt lefthanded pitcher Mike Minor, the audience in MLB Network's Studio 42 erupted so heartily that Selig quipped from the podium, "He must be good, he brought his own cheering section."
Not quite. Though No. 1 overall pick Stephen Strasburg was greeted by energetic applause, the next five picks were met with silence -- the few dozen locals in attendance, mostly MLB employees and their friends and family, must not read Baseball America cover to cover -- so a Network staff member urged them to applaud all future picks, meaning Minor's ovation, though every bit deserved, was a bit contrived.
Therein lies the challenge and the potential of the baseball draft. Fans are willing to learn, but most picks are unknown commodities until they've begun progressing through the minor leagues. Plus, this is a new era when clubs are getting away from free agency and refocusing resources on developing the players they draft. That and the launch of the league-owned MLB Network headline a confluence of factors that make this the perfect juncture for the draft to go primetime.
Baseball can't realistically dream to match the popularity of a mainstream sports audience reached by the NFL and NBA drafts, but there's no reason a televised draft -- only MLB's third ever and first in primetime -- won't be popular at least to a niche audience of seamheads, if not some casual fans, too. Much like the live announcement of the new Hall of Fame class, ably handled by Hall president Jeff Idelson back in January, the draft is news that most fans think can wait 10 minutes for an AP reporter to write it up and post on the wire for quick online consumption. The hopes and dreams of a franchise aren't pinned on one draft pick like, say, Matt Stafford with the Detroit Lions. But with a platform like the MLB Network, why not show the draft live?
As Network president Tony Petitti said before the launch, he envisioned the channel to be a "24/7 home for baseball" and to serve the sport in a "national way." Plans to host and televise the draft, Petitti says, were put in place almost from the first day of the Network. And for good reason:
• Broadcasting the draft on the MLB Network has its symbiotic benefits. Both are fledgling properties that can give each other a boost. Baseball fans interested in the draft have extra incentive to find the Network on the dial; a suitable channel for covering the event in primetime -- no offense to ESPN2's matinee coverage the prior two years, of course -- gives the draft a higher profile. (The Network is available in 52 million homes.)
• The draft is a new marketable property for baseball. There was no title sponsor for Tuesday's production -- though regular Network advertisers, New Era and State Farm, were represented in Studio 42 -- but that's something MLB will explore for 2010 and beyond. A spokesman indicated that this debut was about getting exposure and building an identifiable product that a company might want to associate itself with next year.
• It's great exposure for draftees. As Selig noted in his opening remarks, the Network "provides platform that allows fans to see next generation of stars." Maybe there's a GQ shoot in the works for a high pick, a la Mark Sanchez of USC and the Jets. Strasburg aside, there are sparse opportunities for blue-chip prospects to get exposure and gain a familiarity with fans, so a little camera time can only help. And, heck, it can't be an awkwardly long amount of camera time: With only four minutes allotted for each first-round pick, no one will have to endure too long of a wait in the green room.
That said, don't expect the baseball draft to rival the successful franchises of the NBA or NFL. The ratings for ESPN's first-day NFL draft coverage has held steady the past three years, ranging between 3.4 and 3.6, equating to a little over 5 million viewers, according to Nielsen. Similarly, the NBA draft -- also on ESPN -- has consistently averaged a 2.1 rating since 2006, for just less than 3 million viewers. (Nielsen does not yet rate the MLB Network.)
Several roadblocks remain in the way of making the draft a circled date on the baseball fan's calendar and, unfortunately for baseball, many of them can't be overcome:
• There's less familiarity with the draftees. College and high school baseball gains only a tiny sliver of the exposure that college basketball and football receive. Fans of the latter two sports discover upcoming stars by regularly watching them play. Baseball fans typically learn about the their club's next generation of talent after players have already been drafted and when they are in the minor leagues.
• More draft picks miss than in other sports. Only about 65 percent of draft picks the last two years have even signed with the club that selected them (a rate that increases greatly in the later rounds), and the majority never make the majors.
• Nearly every player takes time to develop. Since the advent of the draft, only 20 players have gone straight to the majors, including only six since 1978 and just one, Xavier Nady, since 2000. Since 1998 only 11 players have even appeared in the majors the same season in which they were drafted.
• The draft is not held in the offseason, meaning it does not extend the baseball calendar and must compete with actual games for attention.
• International players are not draft-eligible. Considering the volume of international prospects, this isn't likely to change, unlike the NBA where foreign players are among the draftees; in fact, the draft is the primary introduction of these players to the average sports fan.
• And the one area where MLB can improve: Convincing more draft prospects to spend a Tuesday night in Secaucus. Only one player, outfielder Mike Trout from Milville High in south Jersey, sat in the studio for the draft. Actually, with no green room on the property, Trout appropriately sat in Studio 42's third-base dugout, along side a dozen family and friends, until his name was called by the Angels at No. 25 overall. Seeing the joy on his face and the attention Trout received by being in-house, Network analyst Harold Reynolds quickly noted that viewers would remember two things about this draft: Strasburg and Trout. "I told our guys, 'We need to work on this," Selig said about attracting more players to be in the studio.
(Though only Trout appeared in person, to its credit the Network did get several draftees on the air, either a live video feed or over the phone, within minutes of their selections.)
Taking stock of the draft after the first round was complete, Selig, standing on the left-field line on the studio's faux field, marveled at how far baseball's draft had come since he got into the game.
"Years ago, all the years we drafted players, my goodness, we didn't even announce it until two days later, and here we are now on live, national television," Selig said.
In fact, he was so pleased the commissioner quickly promised that the event would continue to grow.
"We can do more to boost this event," Selig said. "We market the game so much differently than we did years ago, so I'm very comfortable with the idea that we can make this a much bigger event than it is today. But it's a huge move in the right direction."
There's a limit to how far baseball's draft can go, but there's no reason the event can't be bigger than it is, with unprompted applause and everything.