March 31, 2014 Last Updated 3:00 pm

Opening Day 2014: At Bat gets updated for the season

Many newspapers appear to have given up on both their print and digital special sections as ad pages dwindle, fewer specialty sports apps released

This is TNM’s fourth Opening Day, the day when the baseball season officially (or now, unofficially) gets underway. Opening Day is not what it used to be, that’s for sure.

MLB-iPad-2014For me, Opening Day is still special. As someone who grew up in the newspaper business, Opening Day meant the publication of the start-of-the-season special section, Tommy Lasorda giving the sales staff a pep talk, ridiculous sales quotes (which we somehow always met) and advertisers fighting for the best positions in the baseball section. At Hearst’s Los Angeles Herald Examiner, the Dodger section wasn’t the only special section of the year, but it was the most important one. Back then, baseball still was dominated by radio and the newspapers, most home games still not being broadcast. Readers often kept the sections all season long for the schedules they contained.

Today, it is difficult to even know when the season has started. Is today Opening Day because there are 13 games scheduled? Or was it yesterday, because the Dodgers played the Padres and the game was broadcast late at night on ESPN? Or was it Saturday, March 22, the day the Dodgers played the Arizona Diamondbacks in Australia? Who the hell came up with that stupid idea?

BHerald-Baseball2011a-smA few years ago I was quite sure that the rise of mobile and tablet apps would bring a rebirth of the baseball special section, or something similar. The Boston Herald, for instance, released an iPhone app for the new baseball season, built by DoApp. That app is dead, but the paper does have a sports app still alive in the Apple App Store.

It is probably MLB’s fault that local media is pretty much shutout today. MLB has its own channel on most TV boxes like the Apple TV, its own mobile and tablet apps, pretty much edging out the publishing world.

But the real problem seems more tied to the ability of newspapers to sell advertising than any outside influence. The ad teams today are a sorry lot, it seems, compared to those ad teams that filled up special sections with full page ads.

Take yesterday’s Chicago Tribune baseball section. Chicago has two teams with rabid fans. Yet the 12 page baseball section that appeared yesterday contained only two ads, which when added together did not even amount to one full page. Worse, the way the section was designed, with its cute attempt to placate both Cubs and White Sox fans, meant that there was no back page – and hence no back page ad.

WaPo-Nats-cover(The Washington Post special section that ran Sunday was 8 pages in size and contained zero ads. It can be seen inside the iPad app that was updated today.)

Back in the early eighties, whenever the Herald Examiner ran a special section the back page was taken up by the same big car dealership. The interior right-hand pages were filled with full pages from a couple Hollywood camera stores, a mattress store, and even the occasional real estate ad. Twenty-eight to 36 page sections were about 50/50 ad-to-edit – and we were the small paper compared to the Los Angeles Times!

The fact that many newspapers can’t sell an ad into an Opening Day special section isn’t just a sign that newspapers have seen better days, it is a sign that they have lost the ability to sell advertising at all. They have lost their close relationships with their ad communities. (It is simply not true that all print advertising is dead, look at the leading consumer magazines of proof of that.) It is a sign that ad rates are too high, sales teams too small, and priorities have shifted from selling local retail to selling digital subscriptions. These local advertisers can still be seen on local baseball broadcasts – television and radio – they didn’t go digital.

As for that MLB app, At Bat, the app was updated today for Opening Day. Version 7.1 of the iOA app now has expanded instant replay where all the instant replay clips used to make decision during the course of the game can be viewed via Gameday, the main area of the app where fans follow games. (Google released the app update into Google Play yesterday.)

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