Major League Brouhaha: Boosting ratings with bad blood?

Curator's Note

Today’s video is a segment of an August 2010 broadcast between the St. Louis Cardinals and Cincinnati Reds. Some background: both teams were pushing for the NL Central crown, and bad blood earlier in the season prompted ESPN’s David Schoenfield to declare this as “baseball’s best rivalry.” Here, we see Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina confront Reds second baseman Brandon Phillips during the game to challenge Phillips’ comments the evening before. The confrontation led to a bench-clearing brawl, player and manager ejections, and concussion that ended the career of Cardinals catcher Jason LaRue.

What is particularly intriguing about this video was that chose to feature it at all. Baseball tends to be the “grey lady” of sport, reveling in tradition and enforcing strict rules about player uniforms, appearance, and conduct. Yet here, incivility between two small-market teams is on full display. The commentators add to the conflict, stating “this is not baseball” yet reminding us that there is “not a lot of love between these two ball clubs”; talking players as teammates yet framing Cardinals pitcher Chris Carpenter as an instigator who “[when he’s] not whining about his own teammates, he’s whining about somebody else.” As well, the broadcast camera focuses on the brouhaha rather than panning away from it – in contrast, incivility by spectators is often hidden from view.

Understand that media is drama, and sport is media. Andrew Billings discusses how the Olympic Games – the “biggest show on television” – are carefully constructed to highlight drama often because spectators know little about the sports or the athletes themselves; they need the dramatic frame in order to make sense of it all. Moreover, sports fans crave rivalry. Rivalries help fans Bask in the Reflective Glory of their teams (Cialdini et al., 1976) and provide fans with a sense of social identity – the “in-group, out-group” notions that drive social interactions within and around sports (Armstrong & Giulianotti, 2004).

Already concerns about 2011 Worlds Series between the Cardinals and the Texas Rangers are surfacing (Crupi, 2011) as the teams hail from small markets and lack history (three games total in the 2004 season). Without the rivalry, all we have is the baseball. And who wants to watch that?

Our question: In the absence of large media markets, might MLB be able to boost sagging ratings with bad blood?  




Something else to consider is that rivalries in baseball are as old as the game itself, perhaps the most famous being the more than 100 years of vitriol between the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox. Indeed, the historical significance of both clubs, combined with their ‘healthy’ rivalry and major media markets (1st and 5th, respectively) makes for appealing coverage. 

Shift to coverage of small-market baseball, such as the Cardinals and Reds in this video. Both teams have history, having been founded in 1882 and sharing 15 World Series titles and 25 National League pennants between them. However, both teams sit in small markets (18th and 27th, respectively) and as result, their games (apparently) lack appeal. 

Yet the game – and the television contract – must go on.

I am very eager to see this discussion evolve! 

 OH! I just ready this article in USA Today about sinking baseball ratings. How convenient! 


Thanks for the interesting post, Nick.

We seem to be returning frequently to the way in which Major League Baseball has been marketed (or has marketed itself) in recent years.

I find particularly insightful your designation of baseball as the 'grey lady' of sport.  Baseball's struggles to both embrace and distance itself from its past cultural status is at the core of its current identity issues - it's both "the national pastime" and embracing globalization, etc.

This concept of on-field violence as a marketing tactic to draw in viewers who may not even really know the game has interesting correlations to baseball film.  Eight Men Out, for example, cuts from the first to the fifth inning of game one without warning, making it appear as though there are four outs in the first inning.  No one seems to notice.  This downplaying of the rules of the game in favor of a rousing melodrama is how baseball narrative has functioned for years.

While it may be simpler to describe this as simply baseball reaching for the more aggressive fanbases of sports like football or wrestling, I find it more interesting to ask if the mediation of reality is taking a cue from fiction narratives in this case?  Is this the reality television effect (the blurring of drama and documentary) for sports footage?

Add new comment

Log in or register to add a comment.