Taking B.P. becomes a whole new ballgame

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NEW YORK -- Like to get to the ballpark early and take in some batting practice? Folks like to watch at home, too; the ritual before the game represents the latest frontier of baseball coverage on TV and online.

Regional sports channels have brought batting practice to TV audiences for a couple of years now, but Fox Sports is taking it to another level. For the first time, coverage of baseball's All-Star Game won't start on broadcast or even cable, it will begin online. FoxSports.com and MLB.com will offer a two-hour webcast featuring the stars warming up and taking their cuts in the cage before the July 10 game.

The webcast, hosted by Fox Sports' Chris Rose and new MLB.com hire Harold Reynolds, will start three hours before Fox's coverage of the All-Star festivities from AT&T Park in San Francisco. Fox Sports president Ed Goren says that batting practice is a natural extension and something that can help provide a seamless transition between the Web and Fox Sports Net's one-hour "red carpet" special on the ballplayers' arrival.

Fox Sports' broadcast coverage starts at 8 p.m. EST and will include a tribute to Giants legend Willie Mays.

Some of FSN's regional sports channels have produced semi-regular batting-practice shows before their local telecasts. YES Network introduced a batting-practice show two years ago that includes an extra half-hour of coverage for every New York Yankees home game and almost every road game.

The batting-practice show was created because of the audience's insatiable appetite for Yankees-related programming, YES production chief John Filippelli says. It made sense that since the trucks and other production elements were in place, why not give the fans live and taped coverage of warm-ups? But it isn't all batting practice. There are interviews with players, features and other sports news.

"Twenty-two minutes of watching batting practice, some of it would be interesting, some of it would not," Filippelli says. "But we never went into it thinking we'd do 22 minutes of batting practice exclusively."

There's plenty of interest from viewers -- and advertisers. Local Lincoln Mercury dealers have sponsored the YES half-hour show for the past two years.

"We get good fan reaction to it because it's a compilation of various baseball elements," Filippelli says. "It's a very interesting and fast-moving half-hour."

Fox Sports and MLB Advanced Media are cooperating to bring the All-Star batting practice to the Web, and Goren says that the FoxSports.com production will be different than the regionals' coverage.

"The beauty of this, with all due respect to anything that has preceded it, is that every player is an All-Star," he says. "There's an informality. The guys are seeing each other for the first time in many respects. There's banter that goes on, players are hanging around the batting cage. It takes on a totally different feel from the regular season that I think is appealing."

Fox Sports is having a strong year in ratings and ad sales. Viewership is higher than it's been in years, even though (or perhaps because) Fox is showing fewer games per window. It did start its game broadcasts in April, three weeks earlier than last season. The regular-season ad sales have exceeded Fox's expectations, Goren says, and the All-Star Game ad inventory sold out earlier than ever.

"Baseball has been hot," he says.
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