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Selling Strasburg: Baseball, Broadcast Flow and the Commodity Audience

by Ethan Tussey

by Mabel Rosenheck for IN MEDIA RES

Last month, Stephen Strasburg made his Major League debut for the Washington Nationals. He sold out the ballpark, increased local tv ratings more than twenty fold (and national ratings ten fold) while striking out 14 and regularly hitting close to 100 miles per hour on the radar gun. Strasburg's was widely considered the most anticipated, most hyped debut of any professional ballplayer ever. Sportswriters searched for comparisons, but unlike the monumental debuts of players like Hideo Nomo, Fernando Valenzuela or even Jackie Robinson, Strasburg has not been promoted in terms of any broader social, cultural or political significance. Strasburg is not being used to construct a global audience or a Latino audience or a black audience for the game, yet the hype surrounding Strasburg is nonetheless linked to his ability to sell the sport and to sell the sport to a specific audience. In an age of niche audiences, Strasburg is unique not because he appeals to narrow racial or ethnic demographics, but because the (perceived) neutrality of his whiteness and wholesome masculinity can construct and draw a mass viewership not only to the ballpark but to the broadcast-- which is where the real money in baseball comes from.

As numerous scholars have argued, in television what is being sold to advertisers is not just programming but an audience to buy those advertisers’ products-- the commodity audience. Televised sports and televisual flow are particularly relevant in this respect because sports are one of the few arenas left in which traditional flow between program segments and advertising still reigns supreme. Thus analyzing the continued presence of flow in televised sports provides a space in which to examine how the audience is constructed as a commodity by organizations like Major League Baseball and the Nationals and networks like the MidAtlantic Sports Network or the MLB Network. As much as Strasburg is a product to be sold to MASN and to the advertisers who buy ad space both at the ballpark and on the network, he matters because he can be used to construct an audience that will come to the ballpark that is being used to revitalize the historically black, urban district of Southeast Washington. The selling of Stephen Strasburg as part of the televised game and the use of flow in the construction of the commodity audience thus provide an access point from which to examine both the interests of baseball and the ongoing presence of historic television strategies and baseball's appeal to a mass (read white and male) audience.

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Stephen Strasburg MLB Debut

Clips from Stephen Strasburg's MLB debut.

from Stephen Strasburg's MLB Debut (2010)
Creator: Major League Baseball
Distributor: Major League Baseball
Posted by Ethan Tussey