Ask Major League Baseball if its sport has missed the wave with younger fans and it will trot out all manner of statistics and TV ratings to show that 18 to 34 year olds still follow the game. While it appears that baseball has missed on the MTV wave (quick, name one baseball player under 35 who's a pop figure like Kobe Bryant or Tim Tebow), a recent U.S. poll by Scarborough Sports Marketing shows that 44 per cent of Generation Y calls itself a baseball fan while 13 per cent call themselves avid fans.
The Toronto Blue Jays, too, will produce statistics to demonstrate that they have a young, hip generation of fans coming into the system who are intrigued by the young 2012 team and desperate for a winner, any winner, in Toronto. Stuck in an anachronistic stadium, the team is working hard to make it the place for young fans to meet, party and hopefully become baseball fans.
It's also trying to engage the Ys in the TV universe who might be enjoying Brett Lawrie or Jose Bautista. Baseball is a game of long pauses that are perfect for Twitter, Facebook and e-mail interaction. Rogers, the owners of the Blue Jays, is an interactive communication giant.
Voilà, the evolution of Scott Carson from stats guru to webmaster and live-chat maven. Carson has long been the Blue Jays' numbers guy in the booth with the TV and radio voices such as Don Chevrier, Dan Shulman and Buck Martinez. His job consisted of those tidy morsels of information about hitting lefthanders during night games on the road in April. When rotisserie and fantasy baseball ruled, Carson's number crunching was cool enough for the room. Lately he's been blogging for Rogers' sportsnet.ca as well.
But in the wired age, popping statistics is no longer enough to engage tweeters and Facebook fans. In his cramped corner of the broadcast booth at Rogers Centre in Toronto amid the cameras and lights, Carson points to the new tool of his trade, his web centre/computer. Every game, Carson monitors live chat posts and tweets from the Sportsnet viewing audience.
"I'll try to choose two or three of the best posts and work them into the telecast," says Carson, who works at the elbow of Martinez in the booth. "We'll put them up on the screen and get Buck or Pat [Tabler]to answer questions or react to what the fans are thinking about what they're seeing."
The dialogue isn't always Mensa stuff. There is some star-struck fan content and "what colour is that green light?" questions. For the most part, however, the level of interplay is remarkably informed. Some nights, when the game has controversial moments, the responses can catch fire.
"I got home the other night and saw there were about a hundred responses still in my inbox," Carson says. One thing is certain, even for veteran baseball people, there will be more rather than fewer voices on the air in the future.
A suggestion from the cheap seats for Blue Jays telecasts? We were in the production truck in the bowels of the Rogers Centre watching the production of a recent game. Our eye was constantly drawn to the dedicated camera showing Martinez and Tabler live in the booth, especially in moments when they are talking strategy.
Seeing Tabler and Martinez interacting, their body language and their eye contact during play added an extra dimension to the topic under discussion. Why not work it into the broadcast? In one instance Tabler was describing how batters pull in their hands to turn on an inside pitch. In another Martinez was describing the ideal arm slot for pitchers. (Gregg Zaun does similar explanations on Blue Jays Central on TV.) While the two announcers might not want us adding to their workload, a little bit of theatricality on the game's intricacies can never hurt. Lord knows there are long stretches in a three- or even four-hour game where we can do without another player spitting or scratching.
Skill and shill
Nice work by Martinez and Tabler Sunday on the first-inning homer by Seattle Mariners batter Chone Figgins off Blue Jays starter Henderson Alvarez. The pair noted that the young pitcher had shaken off a fastball sign from catcher Jeff Mathis to throw a change-up against a hitter who was having trouble catching up to the fastball. "All you do is speed up his bat," Martinez noted.
The shill? Showing struggling outfielder Colby Rasmus signing autographs before the game. Look, he's a nice guy! Viewers are more interested in why he's hitting .235. They'll like him more when he starts to drive in runs.