Programming decisions evolve with intensity of matchups

Ferdie Samboe

In his LinkedIn profile photo, Rick Mace, ESPN’s senior manager of programming and acquisitions, poses while seated on what can only be described as a throne to baseball rivalries.

The wooden seat, built a few years ago by artist Jesse Green, has New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox imagery carved into either side, with “The Rivalry” written at the top and “Sunday Night Baseball” directly below. It was used as part of a marketing effort around the matchup and now lives at ESPN’s headquarters in Bristol, Conn.

Programming decisions evolve with intensity of matchups

ESPN’s Rick Mace gets comfortable with the Yankees-Red Sox rivalry.courtesy of rick mace

Mace couldn’t have picked a more fitting backdrop for his LinkedIn profile considering the critical part that rivalries play in his role, which includes working directly with MLB and ESPN’s broader scheduling team to create the MLB on ESPN schedule.

Mace received the 2023 MLB schedule on Aug. 2 and will spend the next few months sketching out a broad idea for what the network’s schedule will look like next season. As part of its seven-year deal inked with MLB in 2021, ESPN has 30 games per year, including 25 “Sunday Night Baseball” games. For each slot, Mace will submit by late December four matchups that ESPN is interested in. Later, often as close as two weeks out from the time slot itself, ESPN will work with  MLB to make a final determination on a game.

How many of his four options for each slot will be rivalry matchups?

“As many as possible,” Mace said. “Those games just matter much more to fans.”

Mace said Yankees-Red Sox is the most important rivalry for ESPN from a ratings standpoint, followed by Yankees-Mets, Cubs-Cardinals and Dodgers-Giants.

But not all seasons are created equal. Dodgers-Padres doesn’t crack Mace’s top four matchups, but San Diego has gained momentum — not to mention star players — in recent seasons. The matchup drew over 2 million viewers and was ESPN’s most-watched “Sunday Night Baseball” game of 2021. 

“When something like that happens,” he said, “you circle it for the future.”

The network secured the Aug. 7 matchup between the clubs in late July and adjusted its promotional efforts around the game upon the Padres trading for Juan Soto ahead of the Aug. 2 trade deadline.

“It worked out pretty well,” Mace said. “We’re always adjusting to the way these matchups evolve.”

NBA rivalries generally follow a similar trajectory.

In the eyes of Matt Kenny, ESPN’s vice president of programming and acquisitions, rivalries need to mature organically. For instance, on the heels of the James Harden-Ben Simmons trade, games this coming season between the Brooklyn Nets and Philadelphia 76ers will be circle-your-calendar events. Still, it remains to be seen whether those matchups morph into a rivalry sustained over time.

True rivalries, ones TV partners can highlight with authentic storytelling, develop naturally. Fans know it when they see it. Kenny referenced the white-hot New York Knicks-Indiana Pacers rivalry in the mid-1990s. While the matchup was an afterthought just a few years earlier, the emotionally charged histrionics of Reggie Miller and spirited Knicks fan Spike Lee in the postseason quickly elevated the matchup into must-see TV.

“You can’t force a rivalry,” Kenny said. “Sports fans are smart — they understand when there is genuine juice. And with the new rivalries, you just have to let them breathe.”

The increase in player movement in recent years has hindered franchises from sustaining long-term rivalries (see Golden State-Cleveland). Only a handful of current players with 10 years experience — Udonis Haslem (Heat); Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green (Warriors); Bradley Beal (Wizards); and Damian Lillard (Blazers) — have never changed teams. But Kenny said the era of player movement has only created fresh storylines, planting seeds for new rivalries to spotlight.

“If Kevin Durant happens to get traded, then all of a sudden, depending on which team he hypothetically would be traded to, it would either enhance a current rivalry or potentially spark a new one,” Kenny said. “That’s the beauty of the NBA canvas. Rivalries are so important because they have the opportunity to simply elevate existing events and help create a ton of awareness around games that are not only of interest to diehard fans, but hopefully to expand our audience as well.”

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