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Home Maury Brown Why Contraction in Major League Baseball is a Pipe Dream

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Written by Maury Brown   
Tuesday, 05 April 2011 08:27

It’s no longer just one writer’s possible folly. It’s now a conspiracy.

Bill Madden of the NY Daily News has been known to write a column or two about Major League Baseball and its desire to dissolve clubs that have seen lackluster attendance through contraction. In 2009, it was Oakland and Florida (A's, Marlins could be goners as contraction looms), and most recently a story touting “The Wave of the Future” that would see the A’s and Rays contracted and with it, major changes in the Divisions (Realignment may be coming to Major League Baseball and here's how it could look)

That was Madden, a Hall of Fame writer known to be well connected with the league, and therefore, it was possible to pass it off as one writer making noise for Bud Selig to get new stadiums built.

But, yesterday, the topic moved from one writer to two as Mike Ozanian of Forbes jumped into the fray (Contraction Looming For Tampa Bay Rays). Ozanian, a stalwart of Forbes and colleague changes the dynamic: it’s no longer a one man show on the topic of contraction, meaning MLB appears to be serious about getting the word out. As Ozanian writes:

Groundswell [is] building in Major League Baseball to dump the Tampa Bay Rays. From what I am hearing, I doubt there will be any baseball at Tropicana Field after 2014 even though the team’s lease runs to 2027.

There may be a “want” for contraction in Major League Baseball – maybe even a need – but even Ozanian said to me, it will be no easy feat.

One could say, chances are nearly impossible.

There has been contraction talk before. In 2001, the Montreal Expos became the target. With a league system that did not see the centralized funds it does today, no new stadium funding on the horizon, and the lack of any meaningful local broadcast deal, the league set about trying to dissolve the club.

The problem was, one was not enough. To balance out the league, two were needed for the contraction game.

In stepped the Minnesota Twins, who had been pining for a new stadium for over a decade, and now baseball’s richest owner, the late Carl Pohlad, decided to be the Expos partner.

Jerry Bell, the Twins president testified before the Committee of the Judiciary of the US House of Representatives on the matter. Saying baseball’s economic system was broken, Bell laid out the Twins position:

“Most of the proposed industry reforms cannot be made unilaterally, however, and that leaves harsher remedies,” Bell said in reference changes that would eventually result in increased revenue-sharing and the Luxury Tax. “The Twins have a difficult time arguing against the need for industry contraction even though we certainly understand we are venerable to it.”

The problem was, as it is now, closing up clubs is not that simple.

The MLBPA certainly had something to say about it in 2001 with the Expos and Twins, as they do today. Simply put, contraction equals laying off workers. Even if there were a dispersal draft, there would be less roster spots at the major league level, and even though they aren’t union members, the associated minor league clubs would be dissolved, as well. A source at the MLBPA confirmed that they would vigorously fight any attempt at contraction.

And then there’s broadcasting.

Unlike the Expos, who had no great broadcast deal, the Twins had reached one with Midwest Sports Channel in 1998 that would run through the 2003 season, and Fox Sports Net Minnesota had purchased all the assets associated with MSC. Now, just two years later, the Twins were saying they were interested in being contraction partners with the Expos after relocation efforts failed. Fox was applying pressure to hold the Twins to their broadcast agreements by suing them (see FOX SportsNet Minnesota v Minnesota Twins)

It’s possible that that would happen again. While Ozanian said that he doubts “there will be any baseball at Tropicana Field after 2014”, the fact is, the Rays reached an 8-year extension with FSN Florida in 2008, meaning that broadcast agreement won’t be expiring until 2016.

In some senses, this is all academic. The league is in an incredibly healthy state, something it was not in 2001, and what is really happening here is – pardon the uncouth analogy – territorial pissings.

Major League Baseball is not laid out like the NFL , NBA, and NHL. Long before baseball understood the brilliance of Pete Rozelle – the NFL’s broadcast deals that see all its revenues distributed equally across the league’s owners – each had individual broadcast deals at the local and regional level, and with it, the beginnings of an arcane, hodgepodge of television and physical territories began. If there’s talk of contraction, it’s because relocation is a battle hard fought in which no owner in the league really wins.

That was the case with the Expos relocating to Washington, DC and becoming the Nationals. Peter Angelos was kicking and screaming about how he would lose broadcast territory, and to placate and indemnify him, they created a regional sports network that he would control the majority of, MASN.

It’s playing itself out now. Back in 2004, I wrote that The Expos move to DC doesn’t mean the A’s get into San Jose, and that holds true today. The Giants just don’t seem willing to give up their territory in Santa Clara Co.

And so, the real issue with all this contraction talk is, no owner in MLB is willing to allow relocation out of a club’s given territory. The owners of clubs that don’t have financial issues (and, ironically, that now includes the Twins), would rather try and contract teams rather than have them land in their “backyard”. After all, with less mouths to feed, those left standing reap the monetary benefits.

So, the issue is internal. This is MLB’s problem, not one that requires fans to lose a team or two in what Bud Selig has called “Baseball’s Golden Age”.

Because of that, fat chance that contraction ever flies in Major League Baseball. At least, not anytime soon. The MLBPA won’t go for it. The cities that house the clubs  and the networks that air them will fight it. And really, in the end, isn’t this really about trying to new stadiums built at taxpayer expense? It was the case with the Twins and Marlins, and it worked. Whether politicians are any wiser now than they were then remains to be seen.

There are arguments that might be made that contracting the Rays, who have performed exceptionally well in the standings, but abysmally at the gate, should be relocated. Contracting them, even if it made sense, is an impracticality. Baseball needs to figure out its own problems with relocation before the hollow threat of contraction is passed around through the press.


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Maury BrownMaury Brown is the Founder and President of the Business of Sports Network, which includes The Biz of Baseball, The Biz of Football, The Biz of Basketball and The Biz of Hockey, as well as a contributor to FanGraphs and Forbes SportsMoney. He is available for hire or freelance. Brown's full bio is here. He looks forward to your comments via email and can be contacted through the Business of Sports Network.

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