Of all the comments made for this article, maybe Will Carroll of Baseball Prospectus put it best:
"Saying what's right and wrong with the game is an exercise in hubris and futility."
True, but that doesn't mean we can't try, right?
As we approach the end of 2006, Biz of Baseball contacted 32 notable individuals that cover, or work in the business of baseball to get their comments on what is both right and wrong with MLB today. The list of those that responded is as diverse as the answers they gave. We also have selected one reader response by Brian Dupont from the Biz of Baseball forums on the topic that we thought merted inclusion into this compilation (you can continue to add to the forum topic, as well).
Biz of Baseball and I would like to thank all of these individuals for taking time and effort out of their busy schedules to take part in this fantastic compilation. I admire and respect them all, and I hope you do too. -- Maury Brown, editor of The Biz of Baseball
Those that comment in alphabetical order are:
- Jeff Angus - Author of Management by Baseball
- Chuck Armstrong - President of the Seattle Mariners
- Buzzie Bavasi - Long-time general manager for the Brooklyn and Los Angeles Dodgers (1951-67), president of the San Diego Padres (1968-77), and executive vice president of the California Angels (1978-99)
- Alex Belth - Author, and writer for SI.com
- Maury Brown - Author for Baseball Prospectus and editor of The Biz of Baseball
- Will Carroll - Author for Baseball Prospectus and ESPN
- Fred Claire - Former VP and GM of the Dodgers, Author, and MLB.com
- Jerry Crasnick - Author, and writer for ESPN
- Neil deMause - Author, Field of Schemes, and Baseball Prospectus
- Eric Fisher - MLB reporter for the Sports Business Journal
- Rodney Fort - Sports Economist
- Gary Gillette - ESPN Insider, Co-Chair of SABR's Business of Baseball committee
- Chris Isidore - Senior writer for CNN/Money
- King Kaufman - Sports columnist for Salon.com
- Jonah Keri - ESPN Page 2, YESNetwork.com, author
- Tim Lemke - Sports business reporter for the Washington Times
- Rob Neyer - Author and Senior baseball writer for ESPN
- Roger Noll - Sports Economist
- Jeff Passan - National baseball writer for Yahoo! Sports
- Bill Shanks - Braves radio personality, author, and TheBravesShow.com
- Joe Sheehan - Senior writer for Baseball Prospectus
- Nate Silver - Author and Executive VP of Baseball Prospectus
- Michael Silverman - The Boston Herald
- Tal Smith - President of Baseball Operations for the Houston Astros
- Dave Studenmund - Author and Editor of The Hardball Times Annual
- Paul Swangard - Director of the Warsaw Sports Marketing Center
- Paul Swydan - Author, the Biz of Baseball
- John Thorn - Author and baseball historian
- Steve Treder - Author for The Hardball Times
- Jon Weisman - Baseball author for SI.com
- Andrew Zimbalist - Author, consultant, and Sports Economist
- Our Reader Selection - The Biz of Baseball selects what we feel is the best reader response on the state of the game from Brian Dupont of Brooklyn, NY.
JEFF ANGUS - Author of Management by Baseball: The Official Rules for Winning Management in Any Field (Harper Collins), is an active management consultant.
In 2006, the press' priapic passion to natter about performance-promoting supplements led them also to focus on imagined reasons MLB was about to crater (or merely could crater, but whatever you do don't miss an opportunity to get yer knickers in a twist).
The actual business environment was positive, and the resulting abundance led to some interesting management decisions. Record attendance and ticket revenue, combined with extraordinary cash flow from MLBAM overwhelmed what could have been scary news on the TV viewership side (lowered World Series viewership). Fox, of course, completely mis-managed the telecasts -- knowing a universal rule that a higher concentration of ads drops viewership while fewer ads increases it, they decided to wall-board every cubic centrimetre of screen space with relentless hucksterism. Knowing that rule but doing it anyway is a classic case of Angus' First Law of Organizational Behavior: All human systems tend to be self amplifying. So as viewership drops, Fox sells more ads to make up for lost revenue which loses revenues which...
Another embodiment of Angus' First Law: an alleged disparity of strength between the Leagues. It's conventional wisdom now that the American League is stronger than the National. Interlague records are a factual, if not indisputable indicator of this, and as smart and experienced a baseball man as Pat Gillick told me he believes it to be true. Why would this happen? Because all human systems tend to be self-amplifying: if your league is stronger, you have to invest more, refine systems more, to compete or to achieve adequacy, so you build. If you don't have to win 95 games to get into the playoffs, you're less likely to invest to win at least that many games. We've seen this in individual divisions for a long time, but this is the first time in decades the Leagues' strengths have been seen as so different.
Surprisingly, too, a vast number of people who worship the free market are whingeing about the fact that player salaries set since the World Series have been higher than in the past. There's a limited supply of talent, all the competitors in this zero-sum crucible have a slug of new money, all of them are investing it. Big whoop. How one "feels" about the propriety of making Gil "guh" Meche a guhzillionaire is one thing, but deciding that his contract was "overpayment" is just a feeling, not a reflection of the marketplace. Managers beyond baseball do this all the time, to their detriment: become Bitgods (Back In The Good Old Days), allowing their need to have things be as they were before override their ability to judge present conditions.
And on the field in 2006, management evolved significantly. The parts of the Oakland A's tactics that became public through Moneyball were far more widely accepted on almost every team, equalizing those new advantages enough that a pair of teams weighted towards "character" made it to the World Series. That's another lesson for managers beyond baseball: If enough competitors follow the same tactical toolkit, no matter how good it is, riffing off of the standard holds the strong possibility of competitive advantage.
CHUCK ARMSTONG - President of the Seattle Mariners
Professional Baseball in North America is in its best financial shape in history. That is both good news and bad news. Because most teams are finally on fairly solid financial footing, most teams have more money to spend on major league player salaries which has caused a quantum leap this offseason in not only salaries but also contract length. It will be interesting from an intellectual standpoint to look back five-six years from now and judge how this offseason has impacted the game over that time span.
But looking at the current situation from the good-news-glass-half-full perspective, I would proffer the following: a) The opportunities for young athletes to choose baseball as their sport of choice has never been better; b) Unlike the other major sports, Baseball offers the young athlete time for growth and late development as we are the only sport with our own purely internal player development system; c) Baseball careers last far longer than NBA or NFL careers; d) When a professional baseball player's career ends, he still has his body intact and is able to enjoy a long, full and complete life; and, e) Because even mediocre Major League players now can make millions for years, and because of the wonderful pension system in place for retired MLB players, MLB players and their families have now achieved financial security like never before.
And, even more good news: From a competitive standpoint on the playing field, the last six World Series Champions have come from each of the six divisions of Major League Baseball. This is great news for the sport of Baseball.
As Mel Allen used to say: "How about that?!"
(Read the Biz of Baseball interview with Chuck Armstrong)
BUZZIE BAVASI - Long-time general manager for the Brooklyn and Los Angeles Dodgers (1951-67), president of the San Diego Padres (1968-77), and executive vice president of the California Angels (1978-99).
The trouble with Baseball is money. Mr. Rickey, the best in the business--never be another like him--always insisted that the best player is the hungry player. In the forties, fifties and the sixties both players and management were motivated by pride. Today, both sides are motivated by money.
During the last game of the season a friend of mine took his family of four to the game. With parking, concessions, transportation and tickets he was out $425.00. The worst things that have happened to the game is 1) The guaranteed contracts.2) Arbitration. I went to one arbitration hearing in my enter career. After the first one I never returned. The discussion was reviewing a players RBI production. He had all of 11 that year and was seeking a 100% increase in salary. The arbiter asked, "What's an RBI"?. That's when I left. As the saying goes: "Money is the root of all evil.” Ownership wants to blame most of the problems on Marvin Miller; I don't. Marvin never did anything to hurt the game. He was out to help the player just as any GM was out to help his club.
Nothing wrong with the game that another Babe Ruth, Joe D. or Ted Williams can't fix. It's still a great game. The players might not be quite as good as they were years ago, but this is due to the fact that they are brought to major leagues too soon. Not enough minor league experience. This, of course, is due to expansion. Guess you and others will not agree with me that the playing talent isn't as good as it was. Take away the big gloves that they use today and you will see what I mean.
You know why is a great game? The average fan can sit in the stands and tell his neighbor that he can manage better than Joe Torre or he can play better than PeeWee Reese or Jackie Robinson, unlike Football or Basketball where size and height are the contributing factors. I was in the baseball business from 1939 throught 1984 excluding the three years I spent in Africa and Italy. During my years in the game I never met a person on or off the field that I didn't like.
(Read the Biz of Baseball interview with Buzzie Bavasi)
ALEX BELTH - Author of Stepping Up: The Story of Curt Flood and His Fight for Baseball Players' Rights and Author for Sports Illustrated.com
What is right about the game: Direct TV baseball package, and all of the wonderful information and baseball writing available on the Internet. Most specifically, Retrosheet and Baseball-Reference are things that I value and appreciate daily. They help make this a golden age of sorts for fans. Also, just when you think cynicism is going to completely overwhelm you, there are players like David Wright or Ryan Howard, who remind you that the play is the thing, and that there are always great players to watch. Pujols, Ortiz, Mariano Rivera, Joe Mauer, there is no shortage of wonderful players out there.
What's wrong about the game? The hyped-up highlight show mentality of Sportscenter, blaring sound systems at ball parks, the boring debate between "old school" and "new school," moralizing sportswriters, bland, corporate jocks, and vengeful, righteous fans. Oh, and one more pet peeve--sportswriters who write one sentence paragraphs.
MAURY BROWN - The editor of The Biz of Baseball and an author for Baseball Prospectus
I look at the health and well-being of Major League Baseball through the prism of the ’94 Strike. Bud and Don, you very nearly lost me then. Still, I’m struck by baseball’s siren song—of the warm glow of the sun and the true glorious feeling I get when I go to a game with family and friends. It’s that social connection that has been a part of the game since its inception that is what is truly good about the game. It is that thread through history that binds it to those that love it.
Beyond that, it comes back to that strike in 1994. I’m happy to see that the players and management have seen the light and learned that all will flourish if there is labor peace. I see positive aspects of the new labor agreement—from its 5-year duration, to the efforts to make revenue sharing more equitable, it works to grow revenues for all, and that includes the lower revenue making clubs.
I give a tip of the hat to the World Baseball Classic. It turned out far better than I had dreamed, and shows again how well the MLBPA and 245 Park are working together to grow the game internationally.
I’m most impressed with MLB Advanced Media. It’s amazing that the clubs, through the efforts of Commissioner Selig, pulled together a centralized component of MLB that is truly world class, and a facet of all professional sports that is envied.
For the most part, I’m happy with the game, and most of its underpinnings at this point in time. It couldn't be better... or could it?
As with everything, I’m a subjective you-know-what on certain levels, and I can see some warts in the business, as there are in all of them; it just comes with the territory.
My biggest issue is how all the Big-4 sports count attendance. I understand that the owners are concerned about ticket revenues, and therefore are looking at paid attendance (ticket sales), but let’s be honest and go back to counting turnstile clicks.
Also (and, Bud, I know this one is tough), MLB has to address the television territory issue as it pertains to black out restrictions. If there needs to be a fee associated to allow fans the ability to see games in their own “market”, then so be it. But, I’m sure that a fan 5 or 6 hours from the ballpark isn’t going to make the trek when games are blacked out. Make all games available to those that purchase MLB Extra Innings. Mr. Commissioner, I know you’ve dealt with this issue, so you get an idea of what the consumer is going through: it’s restrictive.
One thing I'm sure that the MLBPA and management can agree on is that in the wake of the Matsuzaka signing, the posting system needs to be overhauled. Some might say that the system should be scrapped all together. After all, should two clubs (one MLB and one Japanese) have exclusive rights to a player? The names Gardella, and Flood, and yes... Messersmith and McNally come to mind.
A short one… If the NFL can get the Rolling Stones and a stage the size of Rhode Island setup and torn down during commercial breaks of the Super Bowl, is it too hard to ask John Mellencamp to get in front of a microphone with an acoustic guitar in less? The marketing of the game still needs some tending to.
Lastly, (and this is admittedly selfish), I think it’s time that MLB credential some Internet media outlets for the All-Star game and postseason, including the World Series. There is an increasing number of media outlets that are professional, and first rate that deserve this fair opportunity. The line between online and print media continues to blur, and with that, it is no longer a case where the medium should be the deciding factor.
All in all, I’m pretty much sold on this being a very good period of time for MLB--maybe the best. The Golden Era? Maybe. But, Bud and Don, I’ll save that label for when you retire. Let's see where we are then.
WILL CARROLL - Author for Baseball Prospectus
Saying what's right and wrong with the game is an exercise in hubris and futility. The game has always held a balance between perfection and fatally flawed and it's that balance that makes the game what it is. Say what you will about the modern game, modern players, and modern owners and there's still twenty ways to show that this is the golden age. Like anything baseball can be improved, so here's five suggestions:
1. Limit dead time -- radio showed that exclusivity works. Instead of two minutes of commercials between innings, get advertisers to pay more for the one minute. Add in a small logo -- "The Fifth Inning is brought to you by Bud!" and the revenue goes neutral. More commercialism with less commercials sounds win-win. I'd also add a pitch clock. If you took a kid to a Steve Trachsel game, his Xbox fingers will start twitching.
2. The return of the doubleheader --- again, charge more for the ticket. The union would buy in if it added more off-days, something i always hear players complaining about. Done right, a balance could be struck between revenue, off-days, and shortening the season. I'd rather see more doubleheaders than 154 game seasons.
3. End the blackouts -- The blackout rules are arcane and needless. If I pay for MLB.tv or Extra Innings, I should be able to see the games. Need a small extra fee for local games? I'm sure we can work something out. Then again, it would be nice if the owners threw this bone out there for the fans.
4. Force the moral imperative on steroids -- The NFL's policy is a joke, so the beating that MLB takes on drug policy could be used as marketing. Point out how strong the policy is or better, hand it off to WADA. (Yes, they're no better, but they are independent.) Put pressure on other sports to do the same. Spend a LOT more money on education and fund high school testing.
5. Labor Peace -- what? Ahh, Merry Christmas, Mr. Scroogelig. God bless us, every one.
FRED CLAIRE - Former VP and GM of the Dodgers, Author of My 30 Years in Dodger Blue, and currently with MLB.com
I approach the question with thoughts of the baseball Winter Meetings and recent news stories still in my mind…
The game is on the right track when there are several hundred young people in attendance at the Winter Meetings looking for opportunities…and there’s something very wrong about the fact that many people who devoted their lives to the game don’t have adequate pension plans in their senior years...
There is something inspiring to see people who have been in the game for many years show up at the Winter Meetings looking for a job in a quite and dignified fashion…and something wrong with Barry Bonds parading through the lobby of the hotel headquarters…
There is something wrong about a system where a team spends $51 million dollars for the rights to negotiate with a player from Japan…..and there’s something even more wrong when there are fewer and fewer players coming from U.S. soil to reach the Major Leagues…
There’s something wrong when the discussion of next year’s Hall of Fame ballot is overshadowed by the talk of players who may or may not have used performance enhancing drugs…when few people have knowledge and almost everyone seems to have a definite opinion….
There’s something right about a man like Roland Hemond—who has attended every Winter Meetings since 1951— when he stops to talk to every young person seeking advice…and something wrong about a few executives who don’t even bother to respond to questions about how a young person can get a chance to enter the game…
There’s something really out of balance when very average Major League players sign contracts suited for stars…there’s something just as wrong when players let agents direct their decisions instead of following their own hearts and minds…
There’s something good when you see an agent like Ron Shapiro, not in a hotel lobby but buying an ice cream cone at a nearby location, and know that every deal you have ever had with him reflected the credibility of the man….
There’s something good when you see the people who run minor league teams display a true dedication to the sport…
You know it’s right when you see men like Bob Geren, Ron Washington, Fredi Gonzalez and Manny Acta getting a chance to manage in the big leagues for the first time after paying their dues for many years…
There’s a lot more right and a lot more wrong with our game but you know you have spent your life in the right place when you have been going to Winter Meetings for nearly 40 years and have enjoyed every single moment of your involvement with baseball.
(Read the Biz of Baseball interview with Fred Claire)
JERRY CRASNICK - Baseball writer for ESPN and Baseball America; Author of License to Deal: A Season on the Run with a Maverick Baseball Agent
Here's what I love most about baseball: The sense of order that it brings to my life at a time when my daughters are growing up too quickly, world events are spiraling out of control, and I can't quite grasp how to incorporate bluetooth technology into my universe. I love watching Dontrelle Willis pump his fist after escaping a bases-loaded jam, David Eckstein somehow finding a way to shot-put the ball to first base a half-step ahead of the runner, and Charlie Manuel explaining the intricacies of dugout strategy. It's better than Borat.
Nothing terribly profound here -- just the same things that attracted me to the game as an eight-year-old Boston Red Sox fan growing in Maine. There's a reason why NFL rosters feature refrigerators with legs, and everybody focuses on baseball's steroid problem. There's a reason why 7-foot NBA stiffs drive Ferraris, and baseball fans know Alex Rodriguez's contract down to the final decimal point. Baseball will always be held to a higher standard, and the people who run the game should be grateful -- because it's fueled by passion rather than point spreads.
In my estimation, the most profound changes can only make baseball better. I'm excited about the game's more global reach, and wondering whether Daisuke Matsuzaka can have an Ichiro Suzuki-like impact as a rookie with the Red Sox.
Some of the Internet blogging out there is a little too mean-spirited for my tastes, but people like Bill James and Retrosheet's Dave Smith and the folks at Baseball Prospectus have revolutionized the way we all think about the game, and helped us all view it in a whole new light.
What don't I like? With apologies to David Ortiz and Travis Hafner, the DH rule is still a blight on the game. Some days Hawk Harrelson makes my ears bleed. And I hope the next agent client-stealing story that I write for ESPN.com will be the last in my journalism career. But I'm nitpicking here. When the Detroit Tigers go from 43 victories to a World Series in three years, or Anibal Sanchez becomes the first pitcher since Randy Johnson to throw a no-hitter, it's just another sign that baseball's capacity to surprise and delight is as strong as ever.
Heck, I don't even begrudge Gil Meche the opportunity to make $11 million a year through 2011. When the game is generating more than $5 billion a year in revenue, and attendance continues to climb, and we've had seven different World Series winners since 2000, and Bud Selig and Donald Fehr can sit at a press conference in October and say nice things to each other while announcing five more years of labor peace, it's hard not to feel good about baseball. Where it's been, and where it's headed.
NEIL DeMAUSE - Co-author of Field of Schemes , and author for Baseball Prospectus
Figuring out what's "right" and "wrong" with MLB depends largely on whose perspective you take. From an owner's standpoint, clearly these are good times to be in the baseball business: Ticket revenues and media contracts are through the roof; the commissioner's office has achieved both labor peace and a contract that's relatively management-friendly (thank in large part to the previous labor pact expiring right after 9/11, when the owners could patriotism-bait the union into concessions); and the publicly funded stadium boom continues unabated, with four stadiums costing a total of more than $1.7 billion in public funds breaking ground this year alone. And for players, too, this boodle is trickling down, as Gary Matthews' and Gil Meche's agents could tell you.
For fans, though, the same picture looks less rosy: Tickets are increasingly unaffordable when you can get them at all (and the planned downsizing of capacity at new stadiums only makes matters worse); attending a game means having your eyes and ears blasted with innumerable revenue-generating ads; and even if low-revenue teams have improved their bottom line, MLB has done nothing to allow them to compete for talent with the big boys. I suppose one could count "more cupholders" or "ability to watch games on your cellphone" as value-added features, but I'm not sure those are things anybody's going to be telling their grandkids about.
In short, MLB is continuing its transition from a haphazardly run, tradition-bound, 19th-century niche attraction to an efficient corporate mass entertainment enterprise. Ultimately, that's both the best and the worst thing about baseball today.
ERIC FISHER - MLB writer for the Sports Business Journal
The competition on the field is as compelling at any time in baseball’s history, thanks in no small part to meaningful improvements in league parity and revenue sharing. For all the drama surrounding baseball’s front office in recent years, we still haven’t lost the thrill of watching a well-played game, and that’s the most important thing. The labor front obviously is at a historical high with the new CBA and utter lack of public rancor involved in its construction. MLB Advanced Media continues to run circles around the digital content operations of the other major sports properties, and even before the success of the World Baseball Classic, significant gains were being made in baseball’s international marketing.
On the negative side, MLB still struggles mightily with its overall messaging. Thousands, if not millions, of fans and potential fans believe MLB games are prohibitively expensive to attend, when in fact it’s still an absolute bargain compared to other major league sports, and are even more affordable when accessing midweek deals offered by almost every club. The steroid cloud remains in full force, to the point that Bud Selig recently opined that there are still fans who think MLB doesn’t have a steroid testing policy. That right there is a rather damning indictment of baseball’s communication with the public on the issue. There is also plenty of work to be done yet in making baseball more relevant to African-Americans, and kids of all races. Some of the youth marketing efforts to date have been good, but MLB needs to follow through on long-discussed efforts to make some of the postseason games more accessible to younger TV viewers.
RODNEY FORT - Author and Professor at Washington State University who has specialized in sports economics
Everything that is right with MLB can be found in the fact that millions of kids still want to play and emulate their favorite MLB players. And they grow up to be fans, reflected in the ability of MLB to continually grow revenues. Finally, the game remains essentially the same—three strikes, four balls, get there before the ball, hit the cut-off man, keep your eye on the ball, dig and slide, no clock. Apparently, MLB continues to do enough good while doing well; no formal intervention in their business behavior has ever come to pass despite what is wrong with MLB. It’s typical that “what is wrong” takes longer to cover than “what is right.”
Most observers launch into their pet peeves about either the characteristics of play (the designated hitter, uniform styles, realignment, the wild card, and steroids) or about competitive balance and team economic welfare. But I find all of these arguments to be about symptoms, rather than causes. The root cause concerning characteristics of play is the changing nature of fans. MLB has never stayed glued to any generation of fans; the single seat holds the aging fan but those around him become the new generation of fans.
MLB didn’t stay stuck in the era of eight teams in two leagues, no playoffs (unless a league was tied), wool uniforms, and high socks. Many of us miss the old ways and wax nostalgic, but MLB has always changed to meet changing preferences. It warms the heart of traditionalists when a player tucks their pants up, but many newer fans just chuckle at this quirky choice.
The root cause of competitive balance and team economic welfare issues has ailed MLB since the no-compete “agreement” between the original NL and AL in 1903. No meaningful economic competition exists among MLB owners. MLB owners are allowed to cooperate in ways that are good for their personal economic welfare but not in the best interest of the widest variety of fans. This complete monopoly that MLB has over the number and location of major league baseball teams and the inherent differences in potential revenue across those locations generates MLB’s competitive balance issues. This is mistakenly allowed under simple-minded arguments that MLB is just a franchisor like McDonald’s or completely confused arguments that all cooperation must be allowed simply because a league must cooperate to create a league output.
Arguments over revenue sharing, the luxury tax, and the possibility of a salary cap take this monopoly power as given and only account for the interests of fans of existing teams. The more in-depth look at MLB’s unfettered control over team location includes the interests of all fans, including those currently without teams. Given the current state of regulatory infrastructure for sports in North America, in my opinion the only fixit is through antitrust applications—split up the leagues into real for real competing economic entities. This was my argument in Hardball (with James Quirk, Princeton University Press, 1999), standing on the big shoulders of one of my favorite sports economists, Roger Noll, who addressed the issue in Congressional testimony over 30 years ago.
So, don’t change the game. It is different now than then because fan preferences are different and fans are differently distributed by income and population now versus then. But do make one truly nostalgic change in MLB. Instead of throwback uniforms, impose the throwback market structure that existed between the AL and NL prior to 1903. Make the game competitive off the field as well as on the field by creating separate leagues.
GARY GILLETTE - President, 24-7 Baseball, L.L.C.; Editor, The 2006 ESPN Baseball Encyclopedia; Co-Chair, SABR Business of Baseball Committee
Major League Baseball has made a remarkable recovery from the malaise that pervaded the game from 2001-2003. After posting three years of record total attendance (though the per-game average is still slightly below the pre-strike peak) and record revenues (more than $5 billion this year), both the owners and the players are rolling in green. That is a testament to how well baseball has sold the game in the past few years after decades of incredibly bad marketing. It is also a statement as to how well baseball has so far escaped major damage from the ongoing steroids scandal.
The inaugural World Baseball Classic in the spring was also a surprise success, partly due to low expectations. Nevertheless, there is a dark lining to this golden cloud. The 2006-2007 offseason has brought an eye-popping amount of overspending on what everyone agrees was a mediocre crop of free agents. If industry revenues don't continue to climb steadily, this may presage a financial hangover for many clubs similar to what happened after the 2000-2001 budget-busting offseason. Baseball has been excluded from the 2012 Olympics and seems very unlikely to be reinstated for 2016. And without Olympic status, amateur baseball programs in scores of countries will lose their funding.
MLB's sale of one League Championship Series to cable network TBS continues the devaluation of baseball's postseason. The record-low TV ratings for all of MLB's so-called "jewel events"--the All-Star Game, the Division Series, the League Championship Series, and the World Series--are frankly shocking. When Game 1 of the 2006 World Series between two attractive underdog teams, each led by a famous manager, garners a pitiful 8.0 Nielsen rating, something is seriously wrong. And when the World Series as a whole manages only a 10.1 rating, it underscores just how poorly baseball is appealing to virtually every demographic except aging white males. Ratings for LCS games and for the All-Star Game now rarely crack double digits, and ratings for Division Series games are frequently in the low single digits.
Finally, when American adults were asked by the Pew Research Center in spring 2006 what their favorite sport was, the "National Pastime" polled only 13 percent, third behind basketball (14 percent) and King Football (34 percent). If and when the constant rumors about steroids usage reach a tipping point with baseball fans, the game could see a sharp decline in its popularity, its attendance, and its revenue.
CHRIS ISIDORE - Senior writer and SportsBiz columnist for CNNMoney.com
On balance, there’s far more that’s right with the game today than is wrong. But what’s wrong is still a serious threat.
As to what’s right, even with this off-season’s spending spree by many clubs, Major League Baseball is poised to have the most successful economic system the game has ever known.
It is one in which both small market teams and big market teams can and will be able to compete, and in which it’s in the economic interests of both players and owners to work out their problems rather than shutdown the game.
The just concluded labor negotiations suggest we may very well have seen the last strike or lockout in a sport that once seemed as if it would know nothing but labor strife.
Not only was the deal wrapped up early, it for the first time encourages the owners to grow the game’s popularity, providing powerful economic incentives to teams that improve their revenue.
And players are now being compensated well enough that the chance of future strikes will be greatly diminished. Only 87 players on rosters at the end of last season have ever been through a strike, only a handful will have done so when the current deal is up. In the past the union could count on having clubhouses full of players whom had gone through multiple labor wars in order to win basic rights. That solidarity will be much tougher for future union bosses to win.
Traditional revenue streams are showing growth, partly due to new technology. Digital video recorders and other competing forms of entertainment is making advertising on live sports more valuable, because it will be advertisers’ best chance to reach a broad audience. And online markets to resell tickets will encourage fans to buy the season tickets and ticket packages that most benefit teams, and lead to even more fans coming to games.
In addition, technology is allowing even faster growth of new revenue streams, primarily from MLB Advance Media. In addition to delivering additional growth, it is further leveling the competitive playing field.
The fact that Bud Selig got the owners to agree to evenly split the MLBAM expenses and potential profits at a time when many questioned if it would ever make money will be his greatest legacy, far more than interleague play, the wild card playoff or even the current era of labor peace.
It is likely that agreement will eventually be as important to the economics of the game as was the NFL’s first national television deal, and the football owners agreement to evenly split what was then an exceptionally small pool of money – less than what NCAA women’s basketball gets from television rights today, even adjusted for inflation.
Undoubtedly some teams are spending their way back into red ink this winter, and many teams will head out of spring training with rosters that have no chance to compete. Some teams will dump salaries during the season, and there are some markets that will struggle to support teams.
But that’s been always been true, not just throughout not just the history of baseball, but also throughout the world of business. Empty seats in Miami, continued losses in Tampa Bay and Kansas City don’t obscure the fact that the game has never been healthier financially, and more competitive, and thus more popular.
The game has taken tremendous steps to globalize its appeal and its reach. In a “The World is Flat” economy, businesses that are thinking globally will always succeed over those that are focused only on the U.S. market. Even before the World Baseball Classic, the MLB was one of the leaders in drawing on a global talent pool, and pool of fans. Losing a spot in the Olympics is minor compared to the sport’s global gains.
But for such a successful sport, it can still be surprisingly tone deaf.
The legal challenge over fantasy sports rights fees was a public opinion and fan-relations loser, long before the game lost a legal decision this past summer. Some teams are going to war with their best customers on the issue of reselling tickets.
And too often licensing deals have that anything-for-a-buck flavor to them that hurts the brand more than any money they could bring in justified. Allowing an announcement about team-logo caskets and urns to come out during the postseason is only the latest problem in that regard.
That tone deafness makes other more serious problems worse than they might otherwise be.
All major U.S. sports have problems with use of performance-enhancing drugs, with competitive imbalance, with declining popularity among U.S. youth in a video-game world. But baseball is held to a higher standard, or greater disregard, in all of those areas, because it has opened itself up for so much criticism on other issues.
So for the game to keep improving its success and popularity, it will have to work harder on both those big issues, and as well as not being so tone deaf.
KING KAUFMAN - Sports columnist for Salon
What's right with baseball is, as always, the game itself, which just doesn't seem capable of being ruined by anything, from the Black Sox to the blue doubleknits to performance enhancing drugs. The game itself, ball one, strike two, 90 feet and all that, survives it all.
What's right at the moment is a feeling of renewal, partly from the natural changeover of teams -- the Braves finally missing the playoffs and the Tigers finally winning the pennant -- but more from the wave of exciting young talent that arrived in 2006. The rookie class was incredible. When you've got a guy like Prince Fielder putting up a .271/.347/.483 with 28 home runs and he's just, oh, well, another rookie, it's a pretty amazing time.
What's wrong is that my favorite team has spent the winter signing up the geriatric all-stars, and then re-signing the guy I'd been hoping would finally go away and give me my team back. No such luck by the Bay.
More broadly, there's the PED issue, which is messy and confusing and, well, boring. And then there's the ever-present problem of the game's economic structure, which makes it unnecessarily difficult for small-market teams to compete on equal terms. Why baseball can't get it together to deal with this problem by creating a revenue-sharing system that helps teams with less potential revenue, as opposed to teams that have successfully mismanaged themselves into less actual revenue, is beyond me. Instead the owners just whine whenever there's a hot free-agent market and salaries spike upward.
But having said that, there's more right than wrong.
JONAH KERI - Writer for ESPN.com's Page 2, a contributor to YESNetwork.com, and co-author of the New York Times' "Keeping Score" column. He's also the editor and co-author of the book "Baseball Between the Numbers."
What's right with MLB today:
Opening Day. Die-hard fans. Ichiro and Felix. Strat-O-Matic. Calamari, Anchor Steam on tap, and a seat by the bay in the center field bleachers in San Francisco. Johan Santana. Box scores. The few announcers who call a game the right way, including Vin Scully, Jon Miller, Harry Kalas, Ken Singleton, Dave Van Horne, Boog Sciambi, Mike Curto, Len Kasper and Josh Lewin. Ballclubs that are open to new ideas. Fans who are open to new ideas. Statheads who are open to new ideas. Scouts who are open to new ideas. Sources who go out of their way to call back. Mark Shapiro, the best GM no one ever talks about. Sunsets at Dodger Stadium. Justin Verlander's curve ball. The bullpen Midas touch of Kevin Towers and the San Diego Padres. Wrigley Field bleachers. MLB Extra Innings. Summer road trips with buddies. Tommy John surgery, a medical miracle we now take for granted.
What's wrong with MLB today:
The guilty until proven innocent stance fans and media have adopted on players' use of PEDs. The perception that higher player salaries equal higher ticket prices (higher demand = higher prices). Writers who think they're moral arbiters for the game. Rewarding mediocrity. Teams that keep spinning the carousel of lousy, recycled managers. Managers who favor a veneer of hustle over actual performance. The wink-wink attitude toward domestic violence among ballplayers. Free-agent contracts for first basemen over 30. Spiteful, misinformed newspaper columnists. No more two games-for-the-price-of-one doubleheaders. Teams' blind adherence to the traditional closer role. New stadium extortion. No major league team in Montreal, one of the greatest cities in the world.
TIM LEMKE - Sports Business reporter for the Washington Times
It seems clear that Major League Baseball is in pretty good shape right now. Revenues are up, attendance is up, there's labor peace and the talk of contraction is as dead as Dizzy Dean. There's good parity, reason for hope for most fans and general good vibe about the game. Attending a Major League baseball game is still one of the best values in American sports, and there's a great place to watch a game in nearly every city.
But I still worry about baseball sometimes. Television ratings aren't exactly stellar, kids in urban areas are about as familiar with baseball as bocce, and by August every year the sports conversation shifts too easily from pitchers and shortstops to quarterbacks and linebackers. Baseball may be doing well now, but I can't help but wonder if it's all a mirage. More people are attending baseball games, but it seems that those fans are more of the casual type, rather than the die-hard variety. Long-term, that could be a problem.
And here's something to ponder: what happens a decade from now, when there are no more pretty stadiums to build, and thus no more excuses for a team that's struggling?
ROB NEYER - Author and Senior Writer, ESPN.com
What's right with MLB: Plenty. As fans, we're seeing the great majority of the world's best players, and for a modest fee we can see the great majority of the games in the comfort of our own homes. Thanks to the Web, we don't have to rely on broadcasters and old baseball writers for analysis. Every year, dozens of good baseball books are published. I don't believe there's ever been a better time to be a baseball fan.
What's wrong with MLB: The mainstream media is lagging well behind the fans in how it covers the sport. This is not particularly surprising, but it's nonetheless frustrating. And while I'm among the very few people who give a damn, there are moments when I'm revolted by the overwhelming commercialism that infuses Major League Baseball. I hope I'm wrong, but I fear that before long we'll see advertising logos on the uniforms and actually on the field of play. There is, of course, plenty of precedent for this in other sports, and in other countries.
ROGER NOLL - Professor Emeritus of Economics, Stanford University
Baseball's health is more robust that it has been in years, maybe decades. Behind the obvious -- the growth in revenues and the achievement of stability in the collective bargaining relationship -- is the game itself. Baseball has recovered from the disastrous loss of the 1994 Word Series and the bad publicity surrounding the Balco affair. Notwithstanding the scandals, baseball players are now far more serious about training and far more disciplined than one or two decades ago, and aesthetically the game is now played at an awesomely high level. If baseball avoids another PR disaster in the immediate future, the next few years should be a golden age.
Nevertheless, baseball has not really solved its most challenging problem: retaining fan interest in all teams when some perpetually are not competitive. (I note that neither hockey nor basketball has solved this problem either.) The problem is partly team management. The A's and Twins show that well-managed teams can provide an interesting product on budgets that are realistic in smaller markets. But the problem also arises from two structural issues. First, a 30-team league in which teams play for six months with exclusive focus on a single achievement (the World Series) is guaranteed to have mostly failures in each year and some perpetual failures. Second, extensive revenue sharing causes the profit-maximizing strategy of some teams to be simply to go through the motions and to live off of the shared revenues. This incentive accentuates the problem of playing for half a year to reach a single goal.
The solutions to the structural problems are easy to write but probably impossible to implement. (1) Cut the fraction of local revenue that is shared and adopt a progressive sharing ratio. For example, the first $50 million of local revenue would be tax free, and the rest would be taxed at 35%, with the proceeds divided equally among all teams. This type of formula gives teams in weaker markets a greater incentive to improve compared to the incentive of teams in larger markets to become dominant. (2) Follow the lead of European sports by creating multiple ways to succeed. For example, halt the season for two weeks in late spring for a double-elimination tournament for the "Selig Cup" (patterned after the College World Series).
JEFF PASSAN - National Baseball Writer for Yahoo! Sports
The game is right. The game will always be right. The game is why baseball now thrives, why it has persevered, why it caught on in the first place. The game is malleable enough -- fast or slow, intense or laid-back, a pitching duel or slugfest -- to sate the vox populi. The game speaks. The game cries. The game invites. The game, simply, is perfect.
Baseball is a dream that can be fulfilled, or at least seems that way, and that gives it a proletariat edge that no other sport can claim. Basketball discriminates by height, football by girth or speed, hockey by coordination or number of teeth missing. Fat or skinny, fast or slow, tall or short, baseball is accessible -- full of choices, indeed, from the game itself to the players to the ways in which one can enjoy it.
The availability, in fact, separates baseball. It is a must with the 162-game schedule. Players need to sell their sport, and anyway, rigidity and silence would get boring. The interaction between fan and player is sacred, and it exposes baseball's vulnerability, its tight grip on the past, when second jobs in the offseason were commonplace.
Baseball could lose -- and has lost -- its track when forgetting its simplicity, some kind of feat, because any businessman would sacrifice a limb for a product so turgid with the good. Money has a way of turning fans, and baseball still has not figured out the proper way to convince them they're the reason the sport is in good financial shape. Instead, headlines scream about out-of-control salaries, and paranoia about the future crops up, and Chicken Little the Red Sox fan screams that, boy, these days it costs $51 million just to talk with a guy.
Shunning that base, one baseball seems to take for granted, would cripple the game. Barring a major change, baseball won't be like basketball, its personalities always on display, or like football, its marketing juggernaut so good it could perhaps get someone elected. Baseball should be how Lincoln envisioned this country: by the people, for the people.
Which means, essentially, taking extreme care to see no financial struggles throughout the term of this collective-bargaining agreement. No matter how hard Congress tried, its focus on steroids -- an important issue, yes, though one that would not have drawn Capitol Hill hearings if not for the lure of bipartisan posturing -- proved that people just don't care about them as much as salaries. Why? Few of us know steroids. Everyone knows money.
Hopefully baseball has a watchdog, because for a sport so entrenched in its history, its has evolved rapidly over the last 20 years, and such growth often spirals out of control. No matter what, the sport will always be there, and it will survive on the basis alone of being baseball. Whether everything else follows suit is the question. And it's one that could have a scary answer.
BILL SHANKS - Publisher and writer for The Braves Show.com. He’s also one of the hosts of the Braves’ Wrap Up Show on the Atlanta Braves Radio Network. He has done work on television and has authored the book, Scout's Honor: The Bravest Way To Build A Winning Team.
There are so many things right and good about this game we all love. For those of us that do consider baseball a big part of our lives, it’s an institution and as dependable as anything we have. We long for it, enjoy it, and look back on it, knowing there is no better entertainment in this world we live in than the game of baseball.
The competitive balance that has been achieved in baseball is definitely good. There have been seven different World Series winners this decade. And while small market clubs might still be at a disadvantage, the difference in the gap is not as wide as it was a decade ago.
Yes, clubs like the Yankees and Red Sox and Mets are able to go after free agents and expensive talent easier than the small market clubs. But those seven different champions prove that having a huge payroll does not guarantee success or being on a podium in late October. Instead, it’s all about creating a roster combining homegrown talent and smart trades and additions, and not just buying every player on the market.
Some complain about a club like the Kansas City Royals spending huge money on a free agent like Gil Meche. But aren’t the Royals simply trying to stay competitive in today’s marketplace? To attract a popular free agent such as Meche they had to overpay for a pitcher one could term ‘mediocre’ in his big league career. But at least the Royals are in the game, something that could not be said in the late 1990s.
Most clubs are also learning that while investments in free agents can provide immediate results, it’s the commitment to the farm system that can create long-term success. Look at the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. They do not spend money in free agency, but they have instead developed talent to now be recognized as having the best farm system in the game. Now is where the hard part will come in for the Rays, as they will have to integrate that young talent with more additions from outside their club in order to build a consistent contender.
The inability for clubs to compete for every single big money free agent has forced them to look more at developing their own talent. Hopefully, most of these small market clubs are taking some money from the luxury tax or even simply from profits and pinpointing that to building up the farm system.
We see so many teams try to stay within a budget, and often that means sacrificing players that reach a certain financial level. This makes having an assembly line of talent, ready to replace a player that may no longer be affordable, a top priority. So clubs have no choice but to spend more money and time on developing its own talent. Teams are learning this formula, and that’s why more clubs are now more competitive. But the playoff system in place also gives more teams a chance.
Look at the Atlanta Braves, the team I happen to cover. They were 6-21 in the month of June and struggled to get back to the .500 mark for the rest of the season. But with the wildcard in place they were able to stay mathematically in the race until the last week of the season. This allowed the fans to stay a bit more interested in the team longer than probably necessary, whereas before the wildcard the Braves would have had no chance and probably been out of the picture by August 1st.
The St. Louis Cardinals won four more games than the Braves in the regular season, but they went on to win the World Series. This brings up another great thing about the game today: October is a crapshoot. We never know who is going to win the World Series. You can almost take a dartboard with the logos of the eight-playoff teams and have as good a chance as any to pick a winner. The team that gets hot is the team that wins, which often produces a pretty exciting postseason.
So what’s wrong with Baseball? Well while MLB has made huge strides in providing Internet content to its fans, it still lags behind the other sports in several areas. First, the inability to get The Baseball Network on the air is unfortunate. The NFL Network and NBA TV provide great additional content to its fan bases, but bureaucratic difficulties have somewhat railroaded baseball’s ability to create its own network.
ESPN and FOX provide the games, but where is the ancillary content that could really help promote sport? Why doesn’t MLB have its version of NFL Films? And when we were growing up, ‘This Week in Baseball’ was apart of our weekends. Why not syndicate that program again so that kids of all ages can learn more about our game?
MLB’s decision to have its Extra Innings package exclusively on Direct TV is catastrophic. Why limit yourself and alienate your fan base by forcing them to buy something they may not want in satellite television? Certainly MLB is making enough money already that they can at least allow cable customers to purchase the extra package.
One thing about the postseason that needs to be changed is the first round format. Every round should be best of seven so teams with home field advantage have a true advantage. If the only reason to keep the first round a best of five format is to keep the postseason from going into November, then kill some of the days off and still end the season in late October. But having the first round only a best of five is ridiculous.
When speaking of competitive balance, I think there are two things that could be done to help with the draft process. First, international players should be forced to enter the game through the draft. How many small market clubs competed for Daisuke Matsuzaka? None. So have those type players go through the draft so that the clubs with worse records can improve quicker with better talent.
Wouldn’t the Devil Rays, who own the top pick this June, be more competitive in the future with Matsuzaka?
Every time we read in Baseball America about hotshot shortstop prospects from the Dominican, it’s always the Yankees and Mets at the top of the bidding process. So if these players are in the draft, it’s going to build up the farm systems of the teams not doing as well on the field. They’ll have a chance to improve quicker if the talent pool is stronger.
And MLB should really allow teams to trade draft picks. Let’s say a team falls out of the race and has a few veteran players on the trade block. Couldn’t they improve their future more if they were able to trade that veteran for a draft pick so their own scouts and coaches could develop a younger talent?
I’m going to stay away from the steroid issue. Yes, it’s a problem and I don’t have the answers. The additional testing will help in the future, but for the life of me I don’t know how to react to the statistics put up by players that were probably using something at the time. Do we throw those numbers out or simply laugh at its credibility?
Don’t count me as one who will complain about how long spring training is or that baseball is played into late October. I’m not one that will scream about too many inter league games or the DH. I like things just as they are right now.
There’s more right than wrong, and it’ll never be perfect. But baseball has never been better.
JOE SHEEHAN - Senior Writer for Baseball Prospectus
What's right about the game is the new era of labor peace, structured around a Collective Bargaining Agreement that is the best yet at balancing the interests of all the parties involved. The most recent negotiation was a model of decorum, taking the structure agreed to in the rancorous '02 negotiation and making tweaks that attempt to address the inequities therein. How the new rules affect the game remains to be seen, but there is no question that the positives of a peaceful settlement, reached out of the public eye, outweigh whatever problems the new CBA may have.
If I may add, the other significant right for the game is the continued high quality of play and the emergence of a new generation of stars. This is a golden era for baseball.
What's wrong about the game is the difficulty in blending its business side with the fan experience. There are constant conflicts between the game's fealty to its partners and what would be best for fans. The length of postseason games, for instance, is in no small part due to added commercial time. The growth of luxury boxes and premium seating in new and retrofitted parks has in many places consigned "the average fan" to the nether reaches of the ballpark, seats that are further from the field than ever before. Variable pricing, self-scalping schemes and usurious parking and concession fees give rise to the sense that fans are valued less for their loyalty and more for their cash.
The businesses that comprise Major League Baseball are no different from any other in that they want to maximize profit. Finding ways to do so that are less hostile to the consumers will be a key challenge in the next few years.
NATE SILVER - Author and Executive VP of Baseball Prospectus
It’s hard to find fault with Major League Baseball today. The quality of play is fantastic. The fan experience is being enhanced in a variety of ways, from the beautiful new ballparks to all the things that MLB Advanced Media is doing. We have labor peace, and a sensible Collective Bargaining Agreement. The Wild Card has proven to be a necessary evil, and the only gripe I have with interleague play is the scheduling inequities that the designated rivalry games create. From a more personal standpoint, my job as an analyst has gotten much easier, between the increasing degree to which sabermetrics has a “place at the table”, and the wider availability of things like play-by-play data and video-on-demand.
If there’s one, single thing that baseball could do to improve itself, it would be finding a reliable test for Human Growth Hormone. But that’s a technological issue, not a policy one, and so I’m not going to dwell on it.
Beyond that, most of my complaints have to do with the media. I don’t like the trend toward what I call paparazzi journalism, where there’s as much focus on what someone like Alex Rodriguez does off the field as what he does on the field, and he becomes sort of a caricature of himself. The state of baseball announcing isn’t great, especially on television.
From a front office standpoint, organizations are doing a much better job of player evaluation, but they still have a ways to go when it comes to financial evaluation. Market prices for free agents, for example, are based on a “monkey see, monkey do” approach, and not any kind of sound fiscal analysis. You see the Royals spend $55 million on Gil Meche, and rather than conclude that spending $55 million on Gil Meche is a great way to hemorrhage money, you’ll have four or five GMs tearing through their Rolodex for the number of Jason Marquis’ agent. Still, while there may be some hell to pay for this when the new CBA expires in 2011, it doesn’t make much difference from the standpoint of the average fan.
Okay, so I’d like to see a little bit more diversity in ballpark architecture. I’d like to see internet-based journalists become eligible for the BBWAA. I think I’d like to see some Questec-like system in place for calling balls and strikes; the technology will be good enough in another year or two, if it isn’t already now. But these are minor complaints. Baseball is in great shape.
MICHAEL SILVERMAN - Baseball reporter for the Boston Herald
What is right with the game of baseball now is the fact that a little guy like David Eckstein can demonstrate that smarts, drive and hustle count as much as talent. His MVP performance in the World Series was a refreshing reminder that superstars can't do it alone. I liked that a lot. The growing internationalizion of the game is a huge, progressive development that is only going to elevate the level of play we see in the game. The Daisuke Matsuzaka deal that we can expect any minute is the third of three Japanese arrivals (Matsui, Suzuki) and the most important of all. The infusion of Far East talent with that from the Caribbean is going to make baseball the most international of the big four sports in the U.S. That's a good thing.
What is wrong is that so many baseball players, executives and insiders are walking around with secrets about what happened in the steroids and HGH era. Only Kevin Towers of the Padres, that I know of, has been candid about his suspicions. You have to wonder how many people in the game are going to be able to keep their secrets. It can't be healthy. Another thing wrong with baseball is the D.H. Has anyone brought that up before?
TAL SMITH - President of Baseball Operations for the Houston Astros, and President of Tal Smith Enterprises
WHAT IS GOOD WITH THE GAME:
- Labor peace
- Attendance and fan interest are at a high level
- Broadening of baseball's horizons internationally
- Great new venues with improved amenities for many major and minor league cities and many other new ball parks in the works.
- Enhanced marketing of the game including the distribution of regular season broadcasts/telecasts for all clubs
- Revenue growth
AREAS OF CONCERN:
- Too much player movement and churning of rosters may tend to diminish fan interest
- Competitive balance. Will some clubs ever be able to compete?
- Decline of amateur baseball in the United States and the effect it has on the talent pipeline. Are enough players being signed and developed to supply the 30 major league teams?
- Continued escalation of players' salaries and long-term commitments by the clubs.
- PR fallout from the steroid issues.
(Read the Biz of Baseball interview with Tal Smith)
DAVE STUDENMUND - Author and Editor of The Hardball Times Annual
What's Right with baseball:
- An influx of young and international talent is making the game more appealing and purging some of the ghosts of the steroid era.
- Increasingly, MLB will become an international organization, and they appear to be on the right course for that.
- MLB is adapting to the Internet extremely well. Newspapers, which have been critical to baseball throughout its history, are on the decline in readership. This would have been a threat to MLB, but it appears that its embrace of the Internet will offset the loss of the papers.
- This is a period of relative stability in franchises and between players and owners.
What's Wrong with baseball:
- Too many interleague games. I can live with interleague play, but the number of games should be cut in half.
- The World Series should absolutely not be played in late October, especially at night. Considering that World Series viewership hit an all-time low this year, something is very wrong with the postseason timing and/or format.
- Most fundamentally, there is a fairness issue when local governments are asked to pay hundreds of millions of dollars to fund baseball stadiums at the same time that individual players are receiving $15 million to $20 million a year. I wish MLB would take the high road and address this directly, but I know they won't.
PAUL SWANGARD - Director of the Warsaw Sports Marketing Center
Right – The League’s Digital Media strategy has given them first mover advantage in a competitive marketplace. The abundance of available content and a tech-savvy fan base actually opens the League to a larger revenue opportunity. All this helps the League stay “culturally relevant” to an “all-access” consumer willing to pay for that access.
Wrong – While we must give them credit on the success of the World Baseball Classic and the pricepoints commanded for importing pitchers from Japan , MLB is still a laggard in some important international markets. Just now opening an office in Beijing puts them well behind their peers in the world’s most lucrative emerging market where it takes years even decades to build credibility. Domestically, I also remained puzzled by the MLB’s ability to manage their message and handle crisis effectively…it leads you to wonder…does MLB have a PR department?
PAUL SWYDAN - Author for The Biz of Baseball
In the past two seasons, more has gone right for Major League Baseball than has gone wrong. The play on the field has rebounded a great deal – 2006 was the first season since 2001 where every team won at least 60 games. Marketable stars like David Wright, Ryan Howard, Grady Sizemore, Joe Mauer, and Chien-ming Wang have emerged to join ambassadors like Derek Jeter, Chipper Jones, David Ortiz, and Curt Schilling in championing the game of baseball. Parity is increasing in MLB and simultaneously decreasing in the NFL and NBA, making baseball the more unpredictable and exciting sport to follow. MLB Advanced Media continues to grow in leaps and bounds, to the point where now MLB.com is the exclusive site to see the video for Elton John’s latest single. The World Baseball Classic was a rousing success, and will be even more so in 2009. The new CBA promises labor peace, offers promise for continued prosperity for the game, and ends the possibility of weeks and months of negative headlines for the game. Most teams take a very proactive stance on ticket pricing, using dynamic models that become more sophisticated each season. Most teams have expanded their approach to evaluating baseball players, incorporating statistical tools and methods into the decision-making process. While some view outside the lines Jumbotron games and the like as unnecessary distractions, as the saying goes – you can’t have your cake and eat it too. Such revenue generating distractions have allowed the game itself to go unimpeded inside the lines. That MLB has become creative in luring sponsor money to the game bodes very well for the future.
Unfortunately, this makes the game’s inability to hold the attention of the casual fan all the more confounding. The league’s stance with regard to public relations and marketing remains lethargic and reactionary. MLB is content to let its partners market the game for it, and often they do a poor job capturing the essence of the product. Every March, Spring Training is overshadowed by March Madness. After the bliss of Opening Day, baseball can not sustain its momentum, quickly becoming an after thought in the build up to the NFL Draft. Every August, imagined quarterback controversies take center stage over actual pennant races. In the Internet age, MLB’s antiquated behavior of delayed awards announcements alienates their fan base more than it leaves them waiting in anticipation. Controversies in baseball, like the steroid issue, tend to linger longer than they do in other sports because the league often does not get in front of an issue and give it the attention it deserves.
Major League Baseball remains a great value, with tickets to games still go for as little as one dollar in some ballparks. However, MLB teams squander their proactive pricing by not telling anyone about them or confusing them with mixed messages when they do. It does not seem clear to many teams that they have to compete for their fan base’s discretionary income. In many cities, there are upwards of ten professional sports entities, not to mention college teams, golf tournaments, racing events, marathons, etc. The number of people reaching for their piece of the pie is growing seemingly exponentially, and MLB far too often is content to let others steal what used to be theirs. Talk of the record attendance is completely overblown. According to baseball-reference’s numbers, 10 of the 30 teams – a full 1/3 of the league - had lower attendance in 2006 than in 2005. What’s disturbing is the teams that were lower. San Diego with their still new ballpark, Washington with their still new team, division winner Oakland, and proud baseball cities like San Francisco and Baltimore are among those that saw a decrease in attendance. What’s more, of the 20 teams that did see increases, 11 saw less than a six percent increase. The large percentage increases seen from the Tigers, White Sox, Devil Rays, and Mets are not indicative of the game as a whole, and any attempts to mask them as such fall flat when the evidence is actually examined.
The greater failure however, could be in the coverage of the game. It is true that passionate fans have more avenues for great coverage at their fingertips than ever before. Lost in this is the fact that mainstream coverage has degraded to the point where it offers little, if any, value. The way the game is covered in the mainstream media, from local newspapers and television, to ESPN and FOX, is almost an affront to any baseball aficionado. The networks are certainly most guilty, and as the most easily consumed form of coverage set a poor example to follow. Too often, ESPN and FOX need to be reminded that there are 30 teams, not just the Red Sox and Yankees. Baseball highlights on Sportscenter and ESPNews have eroded to home run derby - whether or not those home runs were vital to the game is of trifling concern. The insidious pre-game shows on FOX push back the start times of playoff games to an obscene degree, forcing any sensible parent to send their children to bed before the fifth inning. Finally, the blackout policy is at best unsettling, and at worst deeply insulting. The city one lives in does not necessarily define what team he roots for, and MLB’s unwillingness to change their policy goes a long way towards alienating passionate fans.
Lastly, and admittedly this might be nitpicking, but MLB could benefit from greater focus within its league community programs. The NFL’s “Join The Team” and the NBA’s “NBA Cares” programs are much more cohesive and visible than those of MLB. Is MLB committed to the Prostate Cancer Foundation, the Komen Foundation, the Boys and Girls Clubs, the Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities (RBI) program, or something entirely different? It is hard to know from its official communications, and MLB.com offers few, if any answers.
JOHN THORN - Author and Baseball Historian; SABR 2006 Bob Davids Award Honoree
The players are better than ever, a statement that has aptly described every decade since the 1840s. Yet somehow the game feels worse. Call it the paradox of progress.
Rising attendance and revenue mask the flattening of the game to a mano a mano contest between a quivering pitcher and an emboldened batter, all too often conducted in a shiny new ballpark with the dimensions of a telephone booth. The game is not better than ever, from an artistic standpoint, and you don't have to be an octogenarian to wish for a return of the triple.
The business of baseball on and off the field--mlb.com is a substantial hit--is thriving. The jeremiads about competitive imbalance and inevitable contraction have declined in vigor and number. Life seems good in Major League Baseball. Multinationalism is the coming thing, and it is a good thing. Albert Spalding was ahead of his time in believing that our national pastime could be a game for the world, but events have proven him prescient.
Despite ever declining viewership for World Series games, baseball is still too much a spectator sport in America. MLB's halfhearted and halfbaked gestures toward reseeding its fields have made baseball antiquarianism and fantasy obsession seem reasonable. America's kids haven't witnessed a World Series or All-Star Game game in daylight in their lives and they play the game less than ever. African Americans, for whom baseball not so long ago provided a beacon toward full citizenship, have increasingly turned their backs on the game; revisionist historians now condemn Jackie Robinson's breaking of the color barrier as a cruel bait and switch by which which more was lost than was gained.
It's great that Major League Baseball has advanced in skill and business acumen. It's time for MLB now, at this moment when it seems the sun will shine on it forever, to consruct a long-range plan for how to insure against storm. It's time to focus on the next generation.
Wrong: Not enough doubleheaders, and not enough triples.
Right: Less artificial turf than there used to be, and generally wonderful urban-setting ballparks.
Wrong: Umpires allowing batters to erase the batter’s box chalk lines.
Right: Ump crews conferring to get the call right.
Wrong: The scoring convention that if a catchable pop fly drops untouched between two or three fielders, it’s a hit.
Right: Stats. Baseball has always had the most elaborate and informative statistics of any sport, and the science of baseball stats has never been more vigorous than it is today.
Wrong: Too many strikeouts, too many home runs. The best things in baseball happen when the ball is hit into the field of play.
Right: SABR. Can you imagine such a thing as the Society for American Football Research?
Wrong: Too many runs, period.
Right: The manner in which teams and fans sincerely honor the sports’ history and lore. Most people involved in the game, even Commissioner Seligula, seem to authentically “get” how much an appreciation of baseball’s rich past enhances our enjoyment of its present.
Wrong: Too much delay between pitches.
Right: Injury diagnosis and treatment, which has never been more efficacious than today’s.
Wrong: TV games as presented by Fox.
Right: Any game on the radio; baseball remains the best radio sport ever.
Wrong: Chris Berman.
Right: Jon Miller.
Wrong: Interleague play, the Wild Card, and the DH.
Right: The general quality of play, which has never been higher.
Wrong: Ownerships continuing desire to have taxpayers subsidize them.
Right: The international popularity of the sport. Baseball has never been played, watched, and enjoyed by more people than it is today. In MLB we’re treated to the talents of terrific players from all over the world, and this year’s World Baseball Classic was one of the most exciting events in decades.
JON WEISMAN - Baseball writer for Sports Illustrated.com and Dodger Thoughts
To a certain extent, my love for baseball is irrational – it is love, after all. But while other passions in my life have come and gone, my relationship with baseball has been steadfast. Over the years, I’ve become invested in the characters of the game the way, I suppose, someone watching three decades of “All My Children” has. Baseball is one grand story to me – one of the grandest – and I cannot weed myself from the storyline that has brought us both Babe Ruth and Hiram Bocachica. The entrances and exits, the highs and lows, form an epic tapestry. I know that sounds full of itself, but that’s how the game makes me feel.
Other sports offer the same potential to surprise, to offer the fantastic amid the quotidian – so what makes baseball special? My family had Los Angeles Rams season tickets when I was a kid, and I was a diehard fan of the Showtime Lakers – so why does baseball retain a greater hold on me? One of the great attractions of the game, I feel, is that it offers so many intermediate achievements besides winning. Just as one example, there is that satisfaction when your pitcher gets a first-pitch strike – followed by them opportunity to pause and savor (or conversely, to agonize when it goes against you). And then, another pitch, on which anything can happen. I’m not sure any sport does this as well. Basketball moves too fast to celebrate a simple pass, golf gives you too much time to ponder a shot. Other sports have their merits, and surely, some offer more pure
excitement, but baseball remains the ultimate game for me. The main thing that is right with baseball today is that it is baseball.
The game is not perfect, of course, nor is it the most popular in the United States anymore, and I do believe that the desire to solve these problems off the field actually leads to most people’s dissatisfaction with it. It’s a vicious circle of making the game worse while trying to make it better. That doesn’t mean that the game shouldn’t evolve – but that evolution for the sake of evolution is problematic.
I believe in players getting all the money they can, in getting paid what the market can bear. At the same time, my initial reaction to Juan Pierre’s $44 million contract with the Dodgers was that surely, surely some of that money would be better spent on our local public school system. That contract, and others this offseason, were signs to me that baseball has more financial resources than it knows what to do with.
While I don’t expect baseball owners to start donating more of their profits to support the nation’s infrastructure, I think baseball can and should make different choices, and invest its top layer of profits back into the game. Baseball has sold much of its control of the game to the broadcasters that cover it. I would suggest, perhaps naively, that baseball buy back some of that control, in the form of taking lower network rights fees in exchange for earlier start times for postseason games, shorter commercial breaks and other fan-friendly adjustments. Doing so, in my mind, would feed the future of baseball more profitably than the current situation, which discourages people of all generations from investing in a game, a playoff, a season that will end past their bedtimes. (It’s not just kids, mind you – people of all ages have trouble staying up for the
final pitch in October, even on the West Coast, let alone the East.)
There are other things right and wrong with baseball, but I think they’re mostly secondary in importance to baseball’s underlying motivation – instead of chasing dollars as a means to draw more fans, it should take the more profitable and digestible strategy of chasing fans as a means to earn dollars. The sport doesn’t need to jazz up the game between the lines – it just needs to take a deep breath outside the lines.
In some ways, baseball has a self-esteem problem. Ever since it stopped being the definitive national pastime, it keeps trying to regain that status. Baseball needs to be prouder of what it is. That doesn’t mean MLB shouldn’t market the game, but better to do so with a new baseball field in the inner city and a 7 p.m. start time for Game 7 than another ivory backscratcher for the owners and the players. Because if baseball can stand tall, in the end, there will be ivory backscratchers for everyone.
ANDREW ZIMBALIST - Author of several books, including In the Best Interests of Baseball? The Revolutionary Reign of Bud Selig and The Bottom Line: Observations and Arguments on the Sports Business , sports consultant and Robert A. Woods Professor of Economics at Smith College specializing in sports economics
What’s good and bad about baseball as we approach the 2007 season? The good is that when the new CBA expires we will have had 16 consecutive years of labor peace. I expect MLB’s revenues to grow at a somewhat slower rate: 7-9% annually during 2007-2011 versus roughly 11% annually from 1995-2006. But this is still very strong growth. The World Baseball Classic looks promising and MLBAM is off the charts. Management in the commissioner’s office and team front offices, with a few exceptions, ranges from competent to excellent.
The bad is that MLB is still not doing enough to lure young fans, that the new CBA – while much improved over its predecessor – has some incentive issues and inflationary tendencies and may sew a new round of owner dissension, the performance enhancing substances problems are likely to linger on, and the inadequacies of the posting system with Japanese baseball.
(Read interviews with Andrew Zimbalist on The Biz of Baseball from 2004 and 2006)
Brian Dupont (OCD SS) - The best reader response post out of our Biz of Baseball forums topic on the state of the game
Purists who refuse to see changes to the game are it's biggest detriment. Everything has to grow and evolve in order to continue to survive and thrive and baseball is no different. Part of baseball's success is that it has been able to do this without loosing it's connection to its rich history and tradition, but there are to many 'purists' or 'old school baseball men' who only believe that this tradition should encased in amber and preserved as it was when they first fell in love with the game.
The obvious fallacy is that if such a stasis were actually the state of affairs we'd all be watching a nice game of Rounders.
Purists take many forms. Analysts deride any new observations about the game, be it OBP or new ways to evaluate defense, because these new observations challenge how they played, and what they have valued for so long. Talk show hosts demand that we put down our tasty clam chowder or sushi and pick up a hot dog (with mustard only). As long as we're not spilling it on them why do they care?
The strength of the game is that it continues to grow, and the changes to it (even those that appear not to work) are well intentioned and can lead to further, beneficial innovation. The DH, once wildly hated, is now included in every lineup on the planet, except those in NL ballparks. The unbalanced schedule begat the wildcard, which makes (at least some) games and races interesting down to the final day of the season. To claim that these changes are only to benefit the money grabbing tendencies of owners misses the point that baseball is a business, and if people are not spending their time and money paying attention to it, it is on it's way to being ignored and irrelevant.
When a thing is irrelevant no one spends their free time hoping that Joe Morgan will finally understand why OBP is important, or trying to figure out why Adam Everett doesn't win a gold glove, or what Manny is really worth. When people care enough to argue about these things in the hope of changing their friend's mind the game is strong enough to keep growing and be around long enough for someone else to find it and love it in 10, 25, or 100 years from now.