People of a certain age: Do you remember the Baseball Bunch?
I loved that show! Cincinnati Reds catcher Johnny Bench was the 'host' and whatever star player he was able to convince to join the show that week, along with "The Dugout Wizard," who went by the name Tom Lasorda, and the San Diego Chicken would be on my TV set after Saturday morning cartoons to educate and entertain me on everything baseball! Man, that was a fun and informative way to learn fundamentals and get me hooked on the game.
Baseball was once the domain for families to share sports memories together. The first sporting event I remember attending was a New York Mets game with my father, my uncle, my siblings and cousins. And while I always enjoyed the action on the field with a chance to see major leaguers up close, that was limited to a two-plus-hour event that always seemed to end before it started.
The medium, though, is the message, and I always got a kick out of seeing my favorite ballplayers hawking things on television, even old-timers my parents would tell me about, like Joe DiMaggio, selling a coffeemaker, and Yogi Berra selling an effervescent chocolate drink (I also remember former Dallas Cowboys running back Walt Garrison pushing smokeless tobacco, but that's another story for another day). The point is, even as a child, I knew and wanted to know more about DiMaggio and Berra even though I never saw them play.
However, there was a shift in America's favorite sport right around that time.
I also loved football as a kid, but there were no television shows out there that appealed to someone in that developing age group (9-14) during the season. Sure I watched the NFL Today, with Brent Musberger, Irv Cross, Phyllis George, and of course, Jimmy "The Greek" and HBO's Inside the NFL, but the former was a half-hour preview of the upcoming day's games (with betting lines discussed), and the latter, a highlight reel. I was too young to stay up and watch Monday Night Football, but when my father allowed it, I reveled in Frank Gifford, Dandy Don Meredith and the great, love-him-or-hate-him Howard Cosell, who all were just as much a part of the game as the game itself.
And while we know the acceptance of gambling by the NFL is what led to the sport taking over the country's hearts and minds, a steady stream of consumers is necessary as older generations die off, which is why this news is going to allow the NFL to maintain a stranglehold on Americans' imaginations for at least the next generation. (And please don't bring the argument that no one is watching the NFL because of politics; the NFL season opener between the Buccaneers and Cowboys had its largest television audience in six years.)
The Viacom-owned cable channel for kids, Nickelodeon, is going to feature a weekly NFL show starring the talented Nate Burleson, former NFL wide receiver, former co-host of Good Morning Football on the NFL Network, and now co-host of the re-branded CBS Mornings.
As part of his deal with CBS that includes his role as an analyst on The NFL Today, Burleson is hosting "NFL Slimetime," which debuts at 7 p.m. Wednesday, and will run weekly through the season on Nick. Last season's NFC wildcard matchup simulcast on the network between the Chicago Bears and New Orleans Saints proved successful enough that the channel is now going to continue its relationship with the NFL by broadcasting this show along with another wildcard playoff game at the end of the season.
Here's a description of the show:
"Hosted by CBS Sports’ analyst and former NFL star Nate Burleson and Nick star Young Dylan (Dylan Gilmer, Tyler Perry’s Young Dylan), with teen sports correspondent Dylan Schefter and Lincoln Loud (The Loud House), NFL Slimetime will be a fun-filled weekly NFL experience for kids and families to enjoy. The series will include: Nick-ified highlights and game footage; youth football spotlights; special guest appearances by Nick stars; interviews with NFL players; and entertaining segments highlighting players and teams on and off the field. Following its premiere in Week 2 on Wednesday, Sept. 15, at 7 p.m. (ET/PT), NFL Slimetime will air weekly Wednesdays at 7 p.m. (ET/PT), with episodes available to stream on Paramount+ the following day, through Feb. 16, the week of Super Bowl."
Baseball is going to have a hard time maintaining any pull on the American public. We always ask why baseball isn't doing enough to market to kids, and while the NFL has taken full advantage of how to capitalize on the almighty dollar, in baseball's attempts to do the same, it always falls flat on its face.
Baseball's definition of marketing its game to children is to move Sunday afternoon games to Sunday nights at the last minute for the television dollar. Baseball markets its game to kids by not having a World Series day game since 1987! (Our own Jay Recher was two years old then, so I think it's safe to say that Jay has never seen a World Series day game.) And where are the Saturday day games? Fewer of those exist. Baseball has become too arrogant by believing that fans will follow after strike seasons and scandals such as gambling and steroids, when those, in fact, have turned kids away from the sport when they discovered who their heroes really are.
The NFL owns Sunday daytimes. Kids are home from school and can catch up to three games if their parents let them stay awake on a "school night." And the NFL's "Play 60" initiative, established in 2007, encourages kids to get physically active for at least 60 minutes a day.
On The Baseball Bunch's Wikipedia page, the article states that the league has tried a show reboot numerous times over the years, only to see delays postpone attempts. Again, another plan to reboot is in the works, but time will tell.
But baseball doesn't have a lot of time to recapture the hearts and minds of the American sports landscape, in fact, it has none. With the NFL now owning a marketing strategy that caters to today's youth, baseball will have to accept that it no longer holds an exalted place. The NFL would be wise not to follow baseball's example.
Cover Photo: Getty Images