I have no stake in this game, other than the ongoing support for my friend and colleague Dan Lauria, who I have worked with on three projects, “Lombardi,” “Dinner with the Boys,” and “A Christmas Story,” and my ongoing strong interest in the crossover space that exists between Hollywood and sport. So when I tuned in to watch “Pitch” last night, forgoing Addison Reed’s eighth inning collapse for the Mets and the Patriots dominance of the Texans on Thursday night football, I wasn’t sure what to expect, other than to hope that the project was a good one for the guy I always call “Coach,” Mr. Lauria.
What I saw was very intriguing, a template that can bring in diverse audiences and even hold the interest of the casual baseball fan not looking for picture perfect swings and throws, but enough authenticity to carry the story through live and believable sports segments. I’m also no critic of film and television, so what I was looking for was a storytelling vehicle, maybe along the lines of “Friday Night Lights.” I think for a first pass, “Pitch” gave you that, and many other elements. Here is why it worked.
Integration: The work that MLB and Fox did to pull quality dialogue, smart, authentic branding and a feel for the drama of baseball as an event played well throughout the show. There were no obligatory cameos of Major Leaguers yet (I’m sure they will come), but the cast and crew felt and looked that parts. The action seemed real for the most part, and the presentation and banter between announcers like Joe Buck and John Smoltz really wasn’t too contrived. The graphics, the uniforms, the background music, the locker rooms, even the pregame warmups all were done to great detail.
The other integration which gives the show props is on the branding side. The integration of brand partners, especially those already aligned with MLB, gives the show some solid ROI, even to the point where the first break had a live action spot featuring star Kylie Bunbury in character for Kohls. It looked and felt like part of the show. Brands like Under Armour and Nike found their home, and if the audience sustains and grows, the opportunity for promotion away from the broadcast is very strong.
Storylines: Yes there were clichés and creative license was taken that made some baseball purists twitch a bit, but overall the dialogue was really what you might expect, and hear in and around the clubhouse. More importantly the arch of the story took twists and turns to show the flaws of the key characters and made them very relatable to anyone who has been around the game, or for that matter has been around elute youth sports. You have old vs. young, dream chasing, retribution, race issues, gender issues, sexism, the struggles that even the most successful deal with, the loss of loved ones, older characters struggling to catch on in a younger, evolving business and the quest for equality, all of which give the characters the potential of depth, and the chance to both love and hate them. Why Amelia Slater decides to out her hair in a bun during a press conference, I have no idea, and would any team let an agent jump up and stop a press conference at the podium, doubtful, but that really gets to the insiders insider. Overall the turns of the plot did really keep you guessing, and wants you to learn more about the stories of the characters, much more than what they do on the field.
Social Media And Marketing: The show, which is targeting all age groups and really isn’t set for the older baseball fan (it’s not Bull Durham), effectively played every platform in and around the opener, with engagement on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter. The cast for the most part is also heavily engaged in cross-promoting on Twitter especially, and even Fox Sports got into the act with clips and other anecdotes as the hour progressed. That type of social crossover is going to be invaluable, and when they can even sneak in behind the scenes footage, cameos of athlete and celebrity stars, and of course merchandising on a wide scale, the casual fan will be even more engaged.
On the marketing side, Fox has many built in tools…from the playoffs and World Series to the NFL, college sports and even maybe the UFC…that their engaged stars can fit in seamlessly, and drop in wherever their schedule fits. That type of integration into sport will go a long way in driving awareness. Then there is the media machine of Major league Baseball. A show that has widespread appeal to the demo professional sports craves; women, younger people, people of mixed ethnicities, families, one that mixes the beauty of sport with the tribulations of life, will fit well into the massive platforms that MLB can reach, especially in the digital space. While the NFL is king in terms of Sunday eyeballs, MLB has an open platform of action every night to promote, and countless partners to cross-promote with. For the sport, “Pitch” becomes a diverse marketing platform with a huge upside to tell stories about the game, and its values.
So will it work? It certainly won’t be easy. Even though this is not a “sports series,” it certainly revolves around sport, and getting casual fans, and more importantly non-baseball fans, to tune in and engage will always be a challenge. On the sport side, at least to start off “Pitch” also abuts Thursday Night Football, so some of the curious sports fans will be siphoned off for the live showing. However we live in an appointment world for viewership now, so the battle against auto tune in is one that can be overcome.
“Pitch has great promotional appeal, a good storyline with believable characters, it is not really bland or sanitized as often happens when teams or leagues get involved in production, and most importantly, it tells a story that is relevant to a wide audience today, involving the challenges and struggles to overcome, all in a setting of sport.
Where it goes in the long term will be for a network and its sponsors to decide. So far it seems like a good start and hopefully gets a chance.