While many things in life change constantly, there were some things I believed to be unalterable — before 2020 that is. Attending baseball games at Coors Field, going to concerts, and eating at restaurants were just three things on that list. 2020 changed that and everything. Even as we bid 2020 farewell, or perhaps more fittingly kick it out the door and hope it falls down the stairs on the way out, 2021 offers hope of an eventual return to some kind of new normal, but also more uncertainty and a lingering feeling that some things just aren’t ever going to be the same.
While the 2021 schedules are out, they are far from a sure bet. In fact, if I had to bet on whether or not the Rockies face off against the Diamondbacks on Feb. 27 in their first spring training game, I would put my money on no. In an unusual scenario where the Rockies are actually set to have Opening Day at Coors Field against the Dodgers on April 1, it might be more of an April Fool’s day trick than a reality. I hope I am wrong, but just as we learned to do in 2020, we’ll likely once again have to roll with changes and just be grateful for anything we get. There will still be a season of some kind and the Rockies, against all rumors, are starting off 2021 with Nolan Arenado and Trevor Story in the lineup.
The interesting thing to think about is the permanent changes that could come out of 2020. Attendance revenues are no longer a sure thing and the money lost around the league could have a wide-reaching ripple effect in terms of lower payrolls. This certainly doesn’t seem to be the case for the Padres, who have added Blake Snell and Yu Darvish to an already impressive roster, but the Rockies have made it clear that they won’t be big spenders (or spenders or any kind really) in the free agent market. It’s also hard to imagine the Rockies handing out a $260 million deal again any time in the near or distant future. That combined with a smaller MiLB pool and minimized farm systems, teams won’t have as many prospects to mine and develop on the cheap.
With four months until Opening Day, is there a scenario where fans will be in the seats? Maybe some of the seats, but all of them? Maybe. But it seems like a lot would have to change. On the bright side, Governor Jared Polis announced on Wednesday that on Jan. 4 Colorado is loosening its restrictions, moving red counties, including Denver to orange. If things can continue in that direction or even just remain in orange, perhaps the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment and the Rockies can find a way to allow at least some fans in seats like the Broncos did.
So hopefully there will be fans in 2021 and maybe even full stands in late summer. Maybe the Rockies will even be in the Wild Card hunt. That would certainly help in bringing in dollars and stability for a stingy front office and make them more likely to lock in Trevor Story to a long-term deal. There’s a lot of maybes there, so let’s move on to the next area of change before I think too much about the probabilities of those maybes.
If anything was learned in 2020, it’s how important it is to have audiences watching MLB games on screens. While overall viewership for the MLB was up 4.2 percent in 2020, when most of the time fans couldn’t attend games, the Rockies had the second straight season of decline in ratings. There are so many factors that influence rating fluctuations, but surely the biggest factor is a losing product on the field. The Rockies had a 4.01 percentage rating in 2018, a year when the Rockies went to the playoffs for the second consecutive season. In 2019, when the Rockies were out of playoff contention by late July, the ratings dropped 18 percent, which was seventh worst in the MLB in terms of year-to-year drop, but still ranking 15th overall in total viewership in the league.
Another unknown variable is the pandemic’s long-term impact on sports fans. Considering this could include a sustained decrease in kids participating in youth sports and households favoring services like Netflix and HBO Max over sporting events on TV, which were some topics featured in an article by Patrick Saunders on the front page of Wednesday’s Denver Post, there could be an overall decrease in sports fans for the next generation.
2020 also brought a new change, but in a more complex way that will change viewership numbers for the better. For the first time ever, Nielsen Global Media, the company that’s been measuring TV ratings since TVs appeared in American homes in the 1950s, started measuring virtual sports viewership. In the past, rankings have all been about how many people tuned into AT&T SportsNet Rocky Mountain on their TVs. Every day, that becomes a less and less accurate way to measure true viewership. More people are cutting cords and streaming games on mobile devices as broadcast TV ratings are down 24 percent on a year-over-year basis. So, this led to a weird scenario where MLB TV ratings were down, but viewership is up because of adding streaming numbers. It also means that data tracked in the past is now different than data collected in 2020. In other words, “in an upside-down season, comparing sports viewership numbers from last year with 2020 is not apples-to-apples. It’s more like apples to apple cider with orange zest,” according to Maury Brown, a Forbes SportsMoney writer. On top of that, with a shorter season and a pandemic that alters economic conditions, there are so many out-of-the-ordinary variables that Nielsen’s new viewership model is going to need a few more years to show true numbers.
With that giant grain of statistical salt out there, the Rockies were still down 24 percent in viewership in 2020. However, Nielsen doesn’t have a percentage rating anymore, but instead an average per-game audience number. That’s what went from 80,442 in 2019 down to 61,207 in 2020. The Rockies were one of 11 teams (out of 25 media markets that Nielsen tracked) that had decreased viewership and they all have one thing in common: no postseason. If the Rockies start winning, they’ll get viewers back. But that TV ranking number? That might not go up ever again. More people are ditching cable for streaming, but right now local fans don’t have that option. They get blacked out games. According to AT&T SportsNet’s website, “the only way to access digital streaming of AT&T SportsNet is to have a valid pay television subscription that contains AT&T SportsNet and whose provider has agreed to allow their customers access to the TV everywhere streaming service.”
That statement is doesn’t offer hope for new, or old, fans finding Rockies games on their phones. In the 2019 Winter Meetings, the MLB announced that owners had, in Brown’s words, “‘approved unanimously a revised interactive media rights agreement.’ In other words, going forward, all 30 clubs are free to negotiate their own deals around streaming in their local and regional television markets. In doing so, never-corders or cord-cutters may finally be able to see live games without the need to have a cable or satellite television subscription, and will be able to see local broadcasts beyond the Facebook and YouTube games that MLB has broadcast.”
Unfortunately, the Rockies and AT&T SportsNet signed a new multi-year deal in September of 2019, just before the “interactive media rights agreement” was changed. Even if the deal had been done after, it’s very likely that the local blackouts would remain. According to Brown, “For those that thought clubs having streaming rights at the local level would somehow remove television blackouts, sorry, they’re not related.” That’s because “regional sports networks need to consider [their] rights and obligations with the cable and satellite affiliates they work with for distribution.” So, whether it’s the Rockies front office not pushing for streaming, AT&T SportsNet’s contracts with TV providers that prevent them from offering independent streaming, or other factors, the bottom line is that no one is making it easy to watch the Rockies. If screen viewership, whether on a TV or streaming, is going to be an important factor for revenues moving forward, the Rockies and AT&T SportsNet need to prioritize making it as easy as possible for as many fans, local to international, to tune in. Maybe that can be a positive development that arises out of 2020, even if we don’t see it on our local phones and computers in the near future. As Brown explains, “Keep in mind that a team and an RSN [Regional Sports Network] can amend an existing broadcast deal anytime.”
If 2020 taught us anything, it is the cliché that the only thing that is constant is change. Hopefully, for the Rockies and the baseball world, some of the changes that come out of 2020 will be positive and maybe we can even witness some of them in 2021.
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Any Rockies fan, from casual to fanatic could probably come up with their list of five concerns and we’d all have the same first two: Will the Rockies have Nolan Arenado and Trevor Story and how can the bullpen be better? After that, top issues could diverge. Thomas Harding went with questions about how to find a cheap but impactful bat for the lineup, about the depth of the starting rotation, and can the Rockies “create momentum” since the thrill of back-to-back playoff seasons has cooled with two consecutive losing seasons.
This story comes with a video interview with Drew Goodman, who said he’s feeling a bit more like Nolan won’t be back in 2021, but didn’t say he had evidence to support his feelings. He also said he could see the Rockies offloading Arenado’s contract in order to open up money for Trevor Story, which makes you wonder why Story would want to stay, but who knows.
Nick Groke put together a challenging 50-question quiz about the 2020 season with a few good Rockies questions mixed in. I didn’t do too great, 30/50 for a solid D-, but it was fun.
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