When Major League Baseball’s draft begins tomorrow, about 200,000 people will tune in to MLB Network to watch—maybe 300,000, in the league’s wildest fantasies. Last year, according to Nielsen (NLSN) numbers provided by Brad Adgate of Horizon Media, an average of 208,000 watched the big-league teams select from the best amateur baseball players. To call the MLB draft the neglected stepchild of U.S. sports drafts would be an insult to neglected stepchildren. In April, 7.7 million people tuned in for the first day of this year’s NFL draft on either ESPN or NFL Network. A couple million were still with it on day three. Almost 3 million people watched the NBA draft last June on ESPN. And in May of this year, 2.9 million watched the NBA’s draft lottery, a procedural event involving ping-pong balls.
Since 2007, MLB has been trying to make its draft into televised entertainment. “It’s a big deal,” says Peter Woodfork, the league’s vice president for baseball operations. “It’s the player’s first step in professional baseball. And we wanted to make it bigger.” For the first two years, ESPN2 staged draft telecasts from Disney World and picked up an average of about 330,000 viewers. (Hal Bodley of USA Today wrote that the viewing experience was “like going to the movies and not knowing any of the actors.”) When the league launched its own cable channel in 2009, it took over draft coverage and lowered the event’s already low profile. That year Mike Trout, a New Jersey native who may turn out to be one of the game’s all-time greats, was the only draftee who showed up at MLB Network’s studio in Secaucus, N.J. When Trout was drafted with the 25th pick, it looked like the crowning of a prom king.
Baseball is working against built-in disadvantages as it tries to attract an audience. With the rare exception of a phenom like Bryce Harper, the game does not have preordained celebrities. Most of its draftees are high school kids who have never played a game in front of a national TV audience, and even the college players among them aren’t likely to make a major-league roster for years. More than 1,000 players are selected in the 40-round draft, and sometimes the best turn out to be from the middle or even late rounds. Unlike the other major sports, the draft happens in the middle of the season and has to compete with games. “Some fans are flipping back and forth waiting for their team to pick,” says Woodfork. “That’s something we’ll have to look at in the future. Can we make it more of a solo act?”
The real drama of the draft—the part that Michael Lewis turned into great prose in Moneyball—usually happens in the bowels of stadiums, where scouts, analysts, and management hash out the picks. Lacking access to that, MLB Network has followed the lead of the NFL and NBA and looked to milk the day’s emotion by bringing in potential draftees. “It brings the face,” says Woodfork. “You get to touch and feel it a little more.” Last year’s 208,000 viewers (a new high for the network) saw five players in the studio. This year, the league has nine on board—its biggest haul yet. Woodfork says it’s not always easy getting them to come since nobody wants to be publicly scrutinized as his draft stock falls. And since some draftees may decide to enroll in college, the league treats them as amateurs, which limits the enticements it can offer. “They’ll go to the Fan Cave,” says Woodfork. “They’ll go to one of the two stadiums for a tour.”
The flip side to the lack of celebrity and glamour—and the best reason to watch the MLB draft—is the innocent joy on display. Instead of hulking, expensively dressed men finally getting access to the mounds of cash they’ve been denied for years, baseball has boys with big-league dreams. Last year, one of them did a back flip on set. “That’s the thing that we can give you, that hope,” says Woodfork. “Our guys, a lot of that will be there, are 17, 18, 19 years old. They are young and they are pretty fired up and excited. It’s fun to watch.”