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October 4, 2002

The Daily Prospectus

Ripoff Tickets + Bad Channels = MLB Playoffs

by Derek Zumsteg

I love the playoffs. Yeah, I complain about the announcers and the scheduling that seems to favor a particular team (say, the Diamondbacks) every year. But I also tape games I can't get out of work to see, or if they conflict. During the regular season, you can pick out particular games you really want to see, great pitching matchups or any game with Barry Bonds. During the playoffs, they're all good games, and some of them are awesome.

During the regular season, I can see where MLB might fail to get the national deal they'd like. But what's happening this post-season is a disaster. Baseball should be putting these games on prime-time, broadcast television. They should price tickets so they're all sold out. We can talk about revenue maximizing, but as many people as possible should be exposed to the joy and great play of post-season baseball.

The first game of the Oakland-Minnesota division series drew 34,853. 31,953 people were at the next one. That's not much over their season average of 27,000. What happened?

The A's, for reasons beyond me, have their playoff tickets priced higher than anyone in the majors. They're crazy: $50 for a field level seat, $35 for a bleacher seat. The Giants, the fricking paid-for-their-own-stadium Giants, charged $40 for their lower box seats, and $15 for bleacher seats. That's insane. The A's are a good team, but they play in a crappy football stadium, and $50 a stub is where the rational consumer weighs taking the wife to a series against buying DirecTV with TiVo and getting a fat channel package.

The A's ticket prices are so bad, there are BP authors who live in the area but aren't going to the games. I wouldn't have thought it could happen, but it did. These subdued, low-capacity crowds in the Al Davis Reconfigurable Hole? It's nobody's fault but the A's. It's a disgrace. Teams shouldn't get national TV revenue for games they don't sell out.

Even that isn't the disaster that baseball has made of the television. We've got great games and it's hard to watch them even if you want to.

ABC Family claims to be distributed on "over 80 million homes via cable and satellite". Uh huh. ESPN reaches over 80 million households, and ESPN2 is at 75 million. So no, I don't buy that ABC number, but I'll let that go. I didn't know I had ABC Family--it was one of the (many) channels I'd deleted so I didn't have to flip through it every time I made my run-around. Some cable networks in my area don't have it.

This bizarre arrangement is the product of the crazy world of cable television. Fox put playoff games on Fox Family and then sold Fox Family to Disney, who needed an outlet for old Wonder Years episodes (because the world can't get enough of Winnie). When Disney bought the channel, they got those games, but didn't want to air them on an ESPN channel, except when they did.

So Wednesday, here's what I got: after ditching "Sudden Death 7-Ball" for the A's-Twins, I watched Eric Chavez airmail that Mays pitch deep into the stands, enjoyed the game, and then ESPN dumped the game to ABC Family after a couple of innings so they could show NFL Tonight.

How is anyone supposed to tape these things? And on a Wednesday? For NFL Tonight? How is an injury update more important than the Division Series? What kind of slap to the face is this? Did Selig sell Michael Eisner a lemon years back? I think Disney might just be filling their obligation to air the games, because increasing viewership for the playoffs would only drive viewers into later rounds, where they don't have any profit angle.

MLB, and I'm not kidding about this, needs to swallow their pride when they sit down for their next TV deals. They need the playoffs--as many divisional games as they can manage and all of the League Championship and World Series--on network television, free to anyone who's got an antenna and can manage to stomach listening to Chris Berman pretend he's a broadcaster for three hours.

Take whatever they'll give. If it's $1, sign a short-term deal and write it off. Buy the airtime like Ross Perot if you have to and get someone else to sell the ads. Nielsen Media Research estimates there are just under 107 million households in the country. Pushing from a fourth-rate cable network that gets its ass kicked by FX to a national audience is at least another 20 million eyeballs, and the increase in visibility (low channels = higher viewership) would bring even more.

If not, find a way to get this mess cleared up. I don't care if DuPuy has to go door-to-door giving people satellite dishes. Even if you're unwilling to make the games more viewer-friendly (thank you, Fox, for allowing me to count the clogged pores on Jeter's nose), reach the fans and the potential fans. Show them how cool the postseason is, get people hooked on baseball. Build the game.

We've got upsets, great games, clashing philosophies, and we're about to have a couple of crazy games in the Metrodome that will make great television...and casual fans still don't know where to tune in without making a concerted effort.

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