The Biz of Baseball reported last week that the Blue Jays have recorded the 2nd largest decline in attendance over the same period last year amongst all MLB franchises. According to the Biz of Baseball’s research, Blue Jays’ attendance is down 24 percent. Thus far, Blue Jays attendance ranks 29th amongst the 30 MLB franchises. Last month Biz of Baseball reported on the widespread cynicism amongst Blue Jays fans and the Toronto sports media concerning the long term viability of MLB in Toronto. Comparisons of the Blue Jays with the ill fated Montreal Expos have been frequent. There are many factors that have contributed to the decline in popularity of MLB in Toronto since the Blue Jays led all of MLB in attendance for five consecutive seasons (89-93). Three of those seasons (91-93) the Blue Jays drew in excess of 4 million fans to Rogers Centre (then Skydome). The decline in the on and off field fortunes of the Blue Jays coincides with the 94 acquisition of - then franchise owner - Labatts Breweries by Belgian brewer Interbrew (now InBev). Interbrew proved to be a disinterested and neglectful owner of the baseball club. In 00, media conglomerate Rogers Communications Inc. purchased the Blue Jays. RCI’s approach to Blue Jays ownership has been scattershot. The early years of the decade just ended saw the Jays big league payroll above the league median, followed by three seasons well below the league median. The years ending the decade saw Jays big league payroll hover around the league median. This season marks the beginning of a new period of austerity/rebuilding. Jays big league payroll ranks 22nd (the rankings fluctuate during the season) and is expected to decline further next season when commitments totalling approximately $28 million to Roy Halladay , BJ Ryan, Lyle Overbay and Scott Downs will expire. Many believe that RCI’s purchase of the Blue Jays was motivated solely by then RCI’s President and CEO Ted Rogers desire to preserve MLB in Toronto. (Mr. Rogers passed away in December 08) RCI’s ownership of the Blue Jays has become an industry anomaly as most corporations - particularly big media companies - have sold their professional sports franchises. The Blue Jays franchise is also an industry anomaly in that it plays in one of the last multi purpose stadiums in MLB. Rogers Centre/Skydome opened in 89. Three years later the debut of Camden Yards ushered in the wildly popular era of retro ballparks. Many have also noted that the demographics of the Toronto populace has changed dramatically since the Blue Jays heyday of the late 80’s/early 90’s. Toronto is a more ethnically diverse community than 15-20 years ago and many of its residents have no cultural or historic relationship with the game of baseball.
The question of what ails the Blue Jays franchise has been much chronicled and debated. Corporate ownership, stadium, demographics, ticket prices, etc.,….but nothing stimulates and revives interest in a professional sports franchise like winning. The biggest single factor contributing to the declining interest in the Blue Jays may be, very simply and obviously, that they are one of only 4 franchises to not make the playoffs since the Wild Card was introduced in 95. (the others are KC, Washington/Montreal and Pittsburgh) But in order to increase the likelihood of a Blue Jays return to the playoffs is it incumbent upon MLB to realign the divisions? Last week Buster Olney of ESPN wrote:
The latest example of why realignment needs to happen: The 2010 Toronto Blue Jays. The interest in the franchise is withering, and with the Rays and Yankees crushing opponents, it's hard to imagine folks in Toronto will look at the Jays as a serious contender at any time this season. That's too bad, because the Jays have gotten off to a good start and certainly would be good enough to be the front-runner in the AL West; if only there was a different alignment of teams, the Blue Jays -- who have the ninth-best starting pitching ERA in the majors -- would be looked at as a playoff candidate.
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Commissioner Selig has done much since '94 to promote competitive balance (aka parity, aka mediocrity) in MLB. Amongst the changes that Commissioner Selig has implemented are the “soft salary cap” (aka the luxury tax, aka the Competitive Balance Tax), sharing of local revenues (last season a record $433 million was re-distributed by MLB) and realignment, which coupled with the introduction of the Wild Card doubled the number of franchises qualifying for the post season to 8 from 4. Realignment and the introduction of inter-league play also resulted in clubs playing unbalanced schedules. While baseball purists lament the disappearance of one of MLB’s greatest appeals - the 162 game pennant race - and similarly find discussion of “strength of schedule” in MLB abhorrent, the changes have been popular amongst the casually interested fan base. More clubs, and a greater diversity of clubs, qualifying for the postseason increases interest across the league. MLB proudly points to the fact that a greater number of franchises won the World Series than won the Super Bowl during the decade just ended. In March 09 Hal Bodley wrote for MLB.com:
The yearly outlook for small-market teams is much brighter than it's ever been. The Tampa Bay Rays went to their first World Series last year with a $43.8 million payroll. Only the Florida Marlins spent less ($21.8 million).
In 2007, three of the four teams in the League Championship Series were in the bottom third in payroll -- Cleveland (23rd), Arizona (25th) and Colorado (26th).
But is there true on the field parity in MLB? Does 8 different World Series champions during the past 10 years and all but 4 of 30 franchises qualifying at least once for the playoffs since the introduction of the Wild Card prove that the playing field is level? Some argue no, that this era of competitive balance is illusory, that there remains the same on the field disparities. However, doubling the amount of teams qualifying for the playoffs combined with the lumping together of small/mid revenue franchises together in some divisions has produced the desired result of ensuring that the large revenue franchises don’t consistently monopolize playoff participation ( last season large revenue franchises did just that).
The competitive balance issue that realignment has not addressed is the increasing on the field superiority of the American League over the National Leagues. (Some argue due to the DH, some argue due to the presence of the Yankees and Red Sox in the AL) Whatever the reasons, it is clearly a lesser challenge to field a playoff contending team in the NL than it is in the AL. So, while practically all small/mid revenue franchises benefit from the “competitive balance” orchestrated by MLB, in particular in the NL, there are 3 franchises that are clearly disadvantaged. The Rays, Orioles and Blue Jays play most of their games against clubs in the superior league which is compounded by the challenge of playing nearly one quarter of their schedule against their AL East peers the Yankees and Red Sox. And obviously, the three “disadvantaged” must win more games during a season than at least one - and in some seasons both - of the Yankees and Red Sox to qualify for the playoffs
The recent past of the Blue Jays illustrates how the current alignment of clubs in MLB unfairly punishes AL franchises. Last week Matthew Futterman wrote in the Wall Street Journal:
A Wall Street Journal analysis shows that if the leagues were united in one 30-team league, and each team had to play all the others a similar number of games, no more than two National League franchises would have even qualified for the postseason in the past five years.
In 2008, the Toronto Blue Jays finished well out of the playoffs and in fourth place in the brutal AL East, which includes the powerful Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees. But in an adjusted schedule where all teams played one another, Toronto's actual .531 winning percentage that year would have been .564, with the improvement coming from playing the National League teams more often.
That would have put Toronto in seventh place in the 30-team league, good enough to make the playoffs. That year's World Champions, the Philadelphia Phillies, would have finished in ninth place, out of the playoffs.
The 2006 Blue Jays, Chicago White Sox and Los Angeles Angels suffered a similar fate, missing the playoffs despite weighted winning performances that placed them ahead of three National League playoff teams—the Los Angeles Dodgers, San Diego Padres and St. Louis Cardinals.
The Blue Jays seasons of 06-08 are widely perceived amongst Toronto sports fans and media to have been a failure. During that period RCI increased big league payroll to approximately $250 million, peaking at approximately $98 million in 08. While the Blue Jays had winning records each of those years (not accomplished since 98-00) none of those clubs seriously contended for a playoff spot. Although then GM JP Ricciardi was not dismissed until very late in the 09 season, his failure to get the Blue Jays to the playoffs in any of the three previous seasons sealed his fate. But in retrospect, were those Blue Jays clubs of 06-08 not good enough to qualify for the playoffs or were they victims of an imbalanced and unfair (to them) alignment of clubs? Was Ricciardi incompetent or simply in the wrong place at the wrong time?
The increased payroll and more competitive clubs of 06-08 resulted in Blue Jays attendance rising to 18th amongst the 30 clubs during each of those seasons. The previous 3 seasons saw the Blue Jays finish 23rd (twice) and 24th in league attendance. Last season the Jays dropped to 22nd in attendance. So what is RCI to do with the Blue Jays? Increased investments in big league payroll contributed to the fielding of clubs arguably competitive enough to qualify for the playoffs….in most divisions in MLB, but not the AL East. While astute baseball fans in Toronto understand the Blue Jays AL East conundrum, the casually interested baseball fan in Toronto only cares that “their” club has not been in the playoffs in almost two decades. It is that casually interested fan that RCI must engage if the Blue Jays are to rise again to the upper third of MLB in attendance.
Out of necessity (see the “failure” of 06-08), the Blue Jays are in year one of a rebuilding phase, striving to emulate the success of the Rays. The Blue Jays focus is on assembling a core of elite, young, controllable (ie. cheap) players. When that core is capable of excelling at the big league level, RCI will augment it by boosting big league payroll to the $120 - $140 million range (according to Blue Jays President and CEO Paul Beeston). Early results are very encouraging with young, controllable, high ceiling players Ricky Romero, Brett Cecil, Brandon Morrow and Travis Snider already in Toronto. Off season acquisitions Kyle Drabek, Brett Wallace, Travis D’Arnaud, along with Zach Stewart, are performing well in the minor leagues. The Blue Jays recently committed $10 million to Cuban free agent Adeiny Hechavarria and are expected to be aggressive in next month’s Rule 4 draft when they have 4 of the top 41 picks. This process of lowering and raising payroll to coincide with the development of young talent is referred to as “cycling” in MLB. But without realignment, when/if that core of young talent arrives in Toronto, new GM Alex Anthopoulos will face the same challenge as his predecessor in signing veteran free agents. JP Ricciardi was excoriated in Toronto over the overly generous dollars and terms he awarded free agents AJ Burnett, BJ Ryan and Frank Thomas. But top shelf free agents, then and now, understand that their opportunity to participate in the playoffs is extremely limited playing in Toronto (at least under MLB’s present alignment). Consequently the Blue Jays must offer terms to elite free agents that many of their competitors would not in order to acquire them.
Reviving interest in MLB in Toronto can only be accomplished by a return to the playoffs by the Blue Jays. The Tampa Bay Rays representing the American League in the 08 World Series proved that it is possible for Toronto and Baltimore to qualify for the playoffs. The Rays had a winning record again last season and are a legitimate playoff contender this season. And Boston and the Yankees will not always field dominant teams, debilitating injuries are relatively unpredictable and management is sometimes unlucky and sometimes makes mistakes. But Alex Anthopoulos’s goal of returning the Jays to the playoffs would be made much easier under a realignment of the clubs which truly “levels the playing field”. In the short term RCI appears committed to the Blue Jays and their management team led by Mr. Beeston and Mr. Anthopoulos. But if this regime fails to build a playoff contender will RCI remain committed or look for a way out? Another failure similar to the 06-08 era could permanently sink MLB in Toronto, and MLB needs to ensure that if that happens the unfair present alignment of clubs wasn’t a contributing factor.
Pete Toms is senior writer for the Business of Sports Network, most notably, The Biz of Baseball. He looks forward to your comments and can be contacted through The Biz of Baseball.
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