MLB Network Turns 10: How the Channel Became a Hit With Fans

Executives Tony Petitti and Rob McGlarry talk with The Hollywood Reporter about the highs (and lows) that came with launching the baseball-focused network.
Courtesy of MLB Network
Yogi Berra (left) and Don Larson were the first faces viewers saw when turning on MLB Network when it launched a decade ago.

Ten years ago, when MLB Network flipped the switch to launch in Secaucus, N.J. — 6 p.m. on Jan. 1, 2009 — there wasn't much more for Tony Petitti and Rob McGlarry to do at that point but watch in the wings and hope the rosters they assembled hit a home run.

Petitti had been extracting all of his experiences from sports operations at ABC, NBC and CBS, taking over as the first MLB Network president and CEO. McGlarry came onboard as his senior vp programming and business affairs, laying the groundwork for how to get it up and running years before.

Viewers first saw a Bob Costas interview with former Yankees greats Don Larsen and Yogi Berra, talking about the perfect game Larsen threw (and Berra caught) in the 1956 World Series, followed by a rare recording of that contest. Next came the first episode of the "Hot Stove" studio show. 

That all ran on a 24/7 loop for a few weeks. 

To commemorate the network's anniversary, MLB Network will have an hourlong look-back special on Jan. 1, and then re-air the Larsen specials.

As Petitti has moved onto the MLB commissioner's office, currently as the deputy of business and media, McGlarry succeeded him as in the MLB Network stewardship role in December 2014.

The Hollywood Reporter delivered some quick pitches with Petitti and McGlarry for a tape-measure report of how far the network has come in the past decade.

Flash back to 10 years ago, and what you expected to happen compared to what really did happen. How did the launch play out?

Petitti: Early in the first week that we launched, we were all worn out, go I was driving home and stopped at a place to get some pizza and beer at about 10 p.m. I look up at the TV and ask the bartender if they got MLB Network. So he puts it on. Here I am so proud, so excited about this. I'm bragging to the bartender … and then the screen goes black. I asked, "Is that your TV? Did your cable go down? Change the channel." He changes it, and everything else is perfect. I call the office and, yep, we're having a technical issue. It's probably the 73rd time we're airing the Larsen game, right? I get back in the car and drove back to see … but that was the spirit of the launch. It seems crazy but I could never forget about how happy I was and then something happens you can never get away from. After that week, every time we had a new show I'd take a breath. I never think of those things any more.

McGlarry: It's funny because I was at the league's business side and worked on deals that formed the framework for everything going back to 2007. So for a long time, the network was just a bunch of contracts in binders in my office. When Tony was hired in 2008, I didn't know him, just by his reputation. We had a countdown clock outside Tony's office, and as I was working on deals to get the talent and distribution, I'd peek out, see that countdown clock and say, "I gotta get back to work … we're running out of time." We also had been so focused on the launch, we had to remind ourselves: After day one, there better be a day two and three and four. And now it's been 10 years.

Petitti: There was lot of nervous energy, the anticipation of not just building an on-air network but also building a company at the same time. It was good to start in the winter. No chasing live games with all this new state-of-the-art software that all needed to work. You also realized quickly the baseball community was watching, not just the passionate fans. I probably was most concerned about doing a good job for the people who worked in the game. There were people who entrusted me with the project. There was pressure to deliver.

McGlarry: Everything was ground zero — fun and a little scary. Here's a ticker that runs at the bottom of the screen. What should we call it? "The Baseline." After we did an "MLB Tonight" show and re-aired it, we realized there was a lot of live look-ins at games. On the re-air wheel, that didn't make sense. We needed a highlight show. What would we call it? I'm driving back to New York and I'm just about at the Lincoln Tunnel and I'm thinking … needs to be fast, needs to be about baseball. I thought "Quick Pitch." I want to say I pulled off the road — or I did it at the toll booth — but I sent an email to the office: Let's call it "Quick Pitch." We did things like that every single day.

Major League Baseball was the last of the four major sports leagues to have its own network. NBA TV had been in existence about 10 years. The NFL Network launched in 2003. The NHL Network was around in 2001, but not in the U.S. until 2007. Was there any advantage in launching after them, to see how they operated, analyze the pros and cons of how they presented content? 

Petitti: It was instructive. My sister actually worked for the NFL Network at the time, so that made things interesting as I was watching the stuff they did real closely while I was also doing the NFL at CBS. But the programming that resonated the most for me was doing March Madness for CBS, back when it a lot of regionalization, bouncing from game to game. I loved all the energy of doing all that as a production person — I'm not sure fans always loved the decisions we had to make. But you'd start programming at noon and before you knew it would be 1 a.m. I wondered how we could develop a show that could do that on a nightly basis. There's no better bundle of content than baseball with so many games every day. From the very beginning I talked about how MLB could be like March Madness. It was a pretty lofty goal, but I wanted to capture that speed and energy and movement. 

McGlarry: The other networks were all instructive but in different ways. When we did the business deals at the time before launch, we were focused on the broadest distribution possible. Some of the others were more about getting sports tier deals and then trying to grow after that. Because we were successful, it gave us the resources to program the network the way Tony did. We knew we'd be in 50 million homes — the largest launch of a cable TV network — which also meant we had to produce quality television. 

 

There still may be a perception that league-run channels aren't anything more than a vanity project, a safe place for them to spin their messages about how great things are going. Yet a month into the launch, MLB Network had to deal with the breaking story about Alex Rodriguez admitting to taking performance-enhancing drugs. Costas is there to do the interview. How did that set a tone that the network would be of service to viewers?

Petitti: Can you think of anyone that could give you any more credibility on covering a story like this than Bob Costas? It made it really obvious why he was such a great asset for the network. I think the credit for covering this how we did goes to then-commissioner Bud Selig and to [current commissioner] Rob Manfred, who then was running the labor side. They said if it was important to baseball fans, cover it. Be honest. Be fair. But if something big is happening and you're not there, you have no credibility. We had candid conversations about this before we launched. I knew it would come up at some point. I didn't know it would come up that fast. You've got to be authentic, right? There are moments when we're talking about great the game is, how it's growing … of course. But every time there have been difficult things and challenges in the game, just like every sport, the network has been there. The other thing, more advice I got from the outside on how to do things: If a story is big enough to be covered by someone else for an hour, you have to cover it for four hours. If someone else is doing two hours, the league network should be doing eight. Maybe that sounds counter-intuitive, but fans want to know you're going deeper because that's why you're there. The first time they tune into you for something important and you're off doing something else, they won't believe you're the place to go for that information. The tone was set, and that first year, we had maybe 13 guys (as on-air talent). Now we have 45-plus doing it. 

McGlarry: I think simply MLB Network is the home for baseball and I don't think it's just a vanity project. We are the primary source of news, information, analysis and following the games for the fans. I understand when the idea of a single-sport regional network comes along, it was very different from what fans were used to. Was there enough content? Will people really be interested? Baseball has the advantage of the day-to-day nature of the game. Day games, night games, late-ending games and the offseason hot-stove talk — it already had its own name. We took advantage of that and built on things that weren't necessarily top of mind to make them into events, like the trade deadline and winter meetings. 

On the 10-year timeline, you've hit many milestones — live playoff games, the innovation of the Ballpark Cam technology, historic games joined in progress, three World Baseball Classics. What stands out as something you're proud about and proved you belonged in the sports TV menu?  "MLB Tonight" has received 13 Sports Emmys in 10 years, including six for outstanding daily studio show.

Petitti: The recognition for "MLB Tonight" [having earned a Sports Emmy Award nomination for outstanding daily studio show in its first year, and winning it in 2010] is something that, you know when you're doing it, you hope your perception is accurate and colleagues are felling the same way. Sports Emmys really do mean a lot to people who work in the business. It might sound cliché, but it was really important to us. When you're grinding every day, not really pointing toward huge events to get excited about, something like a Sports Emmy has a huge impact on how people feel in the company. That recognition went a long way for the culture of the place.

What's been the best night?

Petitti: I remember Sept. 28, 2011 — "Wild Card Wednesday." It's just our third year, and on the last day of the season, we have four games, all with a wild-card playoff significance. When we came in that day for our production meeting, we decided: Let's go as fast as we can. No commercials. Fans will not miss a second. It was the actual culmination about how "MLB Tonight" can look like March Madness with all the buzzer-beaters. Red Sox lose in Baltimore, Rays win in 12 innings over the Yankees, Cardinals win and Braves lose in the 13th … This what we were capable of doing. And you saw the guys on the set — Dan Plesac, Harold Reynolds, Greg Amsinger off camera, just high fiving and going crazy.

What about going forward? What keeps MLB Network relevant?

Petitti: You face those important questions as a network becomes mature. The big thing is to maintain the main core promise. The challenge is staying relevant and supporting the partners and distributors we have over this existence. You set goals of innovation. I love that the network has been at the forefront trying to drive better audio now. A lot of what you hear on ESPN baseball was stuff done in spring training games that no one watched because we didn't even put it on the air. It was experiments just to show others what would happen if we did it. As the world changes, we'll figure it out.

McGlarry: When MLB did a deal with Facebook for video streaming — games that didn't appear on the MLB Network — we felt we were best positioned to produce them, and we were all happy with it. As we evolve we just make sure the network is everywhere they consume video content but we have to be a content hub. Distribution platforms are evolving. Look at this offseason — 45 live hours from the Winter Meetings in Las Vegas over four days. The Hall of Fame announcements are coming up. There's an ebb and flow. The Hot Stove League lasts longer now with signings and trades stretched out. And before you know it, pitchers and catchers are reporting to spring training. Then we're off to the races again.