After landing McGwire interview, MLB Net hopes best is yet to come
Thanks to Bob Costas, MLB Network landed first TV interview with Mark McGwire
MLB Net seeks to continue to compete with the likes of ESPN for big stories
Former Blue Jays GM J.P. Ricciardi could have a bright future in television
Each week SI.com's Richard Deitsch will report on newsmakers from the world of TV, radio and the Web.
Over the years, Costas had repeatedly made overtures to McGwire, the biggest interview get in sports (at least before Tiger Woods went the way of D.B. Cooper), letting the former Cardinals star know he could get a fair and credible forum. Upon hiring Costas a year ago, MLB Net president and CEO Tony Petitti said McGwire's name was at the top of the list when the two discussed the newsmakers they wanted for Costas' Studio 42 interview show.
"We were hopeful that if Mark ever did want to speak, he would want to do it with Bob," Petitti said. "We put it on the back burner, but then in the fall when it was announced he might be the hitting coach with the Cardinals, we thought he would probably end up having interviews at some point."
Pettiti said he and Costas had "exploratory discussions" with McGwire's people over the past couple of months, with those discussions becoming intense in the days leading up to the Jan. 11 interview. The McGwire rollout was orchestrated by Ari Fleischer, a former White House press secretary who runs Ari Fleischer Sports Communications.
"The one thing that's important to understand is we never knew what was in the [press] release," Pettiti said when asked if MLB Network held the news of McGwire's admission in exchange for the exclusive interview. "Bob never saw a press release prior to 3 p.m. [when The Associated Press broke the story]. That's when we saw it, and that's the way it was. The interview was something that had to be set up ahead of time. Once the news broke, they knew Mark was going to need to be out there speaking, and they decided Bob was a good place to do it because of what he brings, in terms of credibility and questions. It would not have happened if Bob was not here. Bob got the interview, and we worked out the mechanics."
"Some people assume -- understandably, but wrongly -- that this was an MLB-orchestrated thing because it's the MLB Network,'' Costas told St. Louis Post-Dispatch reporter Dan Caesar last week. "Anyone who heard the commentary immediately afterward, if it was like, 'Let's get this guy a soft landing place,' they didn't get the memo.''
No matter how you feel about how Costas handled the interview -- and the thought here is that he handled it superbly, especially so given that it was an hour long and live -- the McGwire sit-down represented a huge coup for the year-old network. In a smartly reported piece last week, The Philadelphia's Inquirer's Matt Gelb explored whether the McGwire interview represented a shift from newsmakers opting for league- and team-owned networks, as opposed to traditional outlets such as ESPN.
"If we are doing our jobs properly, hiring the right talent, putting together the right programming and building things properly, we should be a place or be competitive for that type of story," Pettiti said. "When it comes to things that are breaking, we will provide as much coverage as we can. The answer in this case is Bob Costas was the driving force, but going forward, I am hopeful that we will play for those type of things."
How bothered were ESPN officials that the MLB Net scored McGwire's first interview? At least publicly, they brushed off the notion that this was a watershed sports media moment.
"I think, at this point, you have to look at it as a one-off and see where things develop over time," said ESPN senior coordinating producer Jay Levy, the executive in charge of Baseball Tonight. "I don't think there is any history to lead me to believe there is a huge shift. In baseball and across all sports, I feel we get our share of big interviews first. You are always disappointed in a small sense that you don't get the big interview, but we were not the only entity that did not get Mark McGwire first, and it's no different than any other big interview that has happened or will happen. So it's disappointing at a level that we did not get the initial interview, but we were able to get McGwire on the air with Bob Ley for follow-up questions, and we were able to get Tony La Russa on TV first."