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July 17, 2003

On the Mendoza Line

Media Whiffs

by Doug Pappas

The All-Star break affords baseball writers an opportunity to write thumb-sucking "State of the Game" essays. Some engage in thoughtful reflection and analysis, while others dust off the old "Crisis in Baseball" template and update a paragraph or two.

That's so 2002. Haven't they heard? In interviews, and his annual online chat, the Commissioner has made clear that baseball is back, bigger and better than ever. All its problems are receding, thanks to none other than Allan H. Selig and the visionary Collective Bargaining Agreement he negotiated last summer. Listen to Bud for a few minutes and you start to believe that if only baseball could spare him for a few months, he could bring peace to the Middle East, create a stable, multi-party democracy in Iraq, and swoop down to pick up Osama Bin Laden on his way back for the World Series.

But I digress. This column isn't about Bud. It's about Tuesday's USA Today feature, What's the Problem with Baseball?" and its companion, "Ten Ways to Improve Baseball." In the same week that USA Today won praise from Time for its journalism, it published a pair of articles which would embarrass a small-town weekly.

These articles were built around the results of a Gallup Poll conducted from June 27-29. The complete results of this survey, with historical data for context, are available from the Gallup Web site. Comparing USA Today's breathless hyping of baseball's "problems" to the actual data shows how authors Peter Barzilai and John Follaco selectively reported the results that supported their conclusion.

For example, USA Today led with the finding that "33% of sports fans say they are following baseball less closely than they did three years ago." The authors couldn't be bothered to mention either that 12% of fans said they were following baseball more closely, or that the percentage of the population identifying itself as baseball fans is exactly the same in June 2003 as it was in May 2000. Indeed, Gallup concludes, "Despite the perceptions of a dwindling fan base and perhaps less enthusiasm for the sport among its current fans, Gallup Poll data show the proportion of baseball fans in the United States has been relatively steady for the past decade."

Similarly, the 39% of sports fans who "believe the game is in a state of crisis or has major problems" includes only 8% who see baseball in a state of crisis, compared to 31% who saw major problems, 48% who saw minor problems, and 4% who saw no problems at all.

Comparisons of MLB to other sports underscored the success of MLB's anti-marketing campaign. All told, 39% of respondents picked MLB as the professional sport facing the most serious problems, compared to 20% for the NBA, 17% for the NHL and 11% for the NFL. As the article noted, the NHL "had two of its teams file for bankruptcy last season and next year might face a highly contentious work stoppage that could wipe out a season," yet more than twice as many respondents believed MLB was in worse shape. Great job, Bud.

Not that Bud understands the problem. I had to wipe the Diet Coke off my monitor after reading his lament: "There seems to always be this inherent negativism. Other sports and other forms of entertainment don't seem to suffer from that. Maybe baseball is held to a different or higher standard."

Um...sure, Bud. You spend years telling Congress, the press, and the public that small markets can't compete and numerous clubs are on the verge of bankruptcy, then can't understand why public opinion doesn't turn on a dime when you proclaim a New Economic Era.

And any problems sound more serious when the press wallows in them. USA Today spent five paragraphs itemizing MLB's real or imagined difficulties, then blandly referred to the NBA's "several star players with image problems." The "image problems" referenced on the front page of the USA Today basketball site yesterday included Chris Webber's pleading guilty to federal perjury charges, allegations of a sexual assault by Kobe Bryant, and Jerry Stackhouse's arrest on assault charges. But SAMMY CORKED HIS BAT, dammit!

As bad as this article was, though, it's a Pulitzer Prize winner compared to Mel Antonen's "Ten Ways to Improve Baseball." After urging MLB to "stop worrying about today's bottom line and start investing in the game's future," Antonen's first recommendation is to shorten the regular season to 154 games.

Yes sir, nothing says "investment in the future" quite like an immediate 5% across-the-board reduction in local revenues. A shorter season might make sense if combined with another round of playoffs, but that's not one of Antonen's proposals. Instead he suggests using the extra days to extend the All-Star break, contending that the extra rest will rekindle player interest in the exhibition. If that doesn't do the trick, perhaps the players will be excited by his plan to change the All-Star Game format from year to year: AL vs. NL one season, USA vs. The World the next. But why stop there? How about Position Players vs. Pitchers (Brooks Kieschnick ineligible), or the original NHL format of Defending Champions vs. All-Stars? Depriving the champs of an All-Star break would improve competitive balance, too...

Apparently lobbying to succeed Bud Selig as Commissioner, Antonen next proposes a four-team contraction. "Most of the owners say they are losing money; if cities can't support the teams, then contract them." Could Bud have said it any better?

In fact, as Andrew Zimbalist noted during the SABR convention, the best investment MLB could make in its own future would be to expand, not contract. Expansion gives more fans a local club to watch. It boosts attendance and overall industry revenue, and increases interest in baseball in the new markets. In short, it's exactly the sort of long-term strategy Antonen would recommend if he knew what he was talking about.

Confirming that he doesn't, he embraces the definitive non-solution to a non-problem: an MLB "board of directors, comprised of owners, players, umpires, TV honchos and fans," to oversee the Commissioner. If MLB is dysfunctional now, imagine what it would be like with Albert Pujols voting on a new TV contract, John Hirschbeck critiquing MLB.com, Ed Goren of Fox Sports proposing changes to the first-year player draft, and Joe Fan passing judgment on everything. The owners put up the money; it's their business to govern, and to run into the ground if they screw up badly enough. If Major League Baseball were to crash and burn tomorrow, the next day a new league would rise from the ashes to meet the demand for the world's best professional baseball.

Antonen also demands "lower ticket prices." Noting the number of empty seats in many parks, he calls this "simple supply-and-demand economics." That's "simple" in the sense of "something a college freshman might suggest after two weeks of Econ 101." Since major league clubs seek to maximize revenue, not attendance, if the revenue lost by charging less to existing patrons exceeds the revenue gained from new customers, lowering ticket prices will actually cost the club money. This isn't rocket science; smart clubs know how to combine ticket prices, promotions and discounts to attract new fans, and dumb clubs deserve to lose money and patronage.

To "solve the DH debate once and for all," Antonen wants both a pitcher and a DH in the batting order. That's right, a 10-man lineup. Since the number of innings and the number of outs would remain unchanged, every spot in the batting order would lose 11% of its plate appearances. That's enough to ensure that many of MLB's most cherished single-season and career batting records could never be challenged, thereby sparing clubs the expense of preparing for the large crowds that flocked to see Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, and Barry Bonds as they battled for the home run record.

Apparently recognizing that many fans might be less than receptive to this proposal, Antonen offers "something for purists, a step back in time to when baseball was played under the sun." He would require all clubs to play Saturday games during the day. After all, what could be more fan-friendly than a sunny July afternoon in Dallas, Atlanta or Miami? He claims that this would be "a great way to sell kids on baseball," but many of those kids (not to mention their parents) have other commitments on Saturday afternoons. There's no reason to believe local owners don't know what's best for their own markets, and plenty of reason to believe that Antonen spent less time compiling this list than most of us take to prepare a grocery list.

After eight whiffs, Antonen raises his batting average to the Mendoza Line with two decent suggestions out of 10. The first is earlier starting times for playoff games, which certainly makes sense for weekend World Series games--kids are less likely to follow baseball if they're sent to bed in the fourth inning of the World Series. (I speak from experience here. My own obsession with baseball dates to shortly before my eighth birthday, when the tantrum I threw after missing the end of this game induced my mother to offer a deal: no mandatory bedtime so long as I was always awake and alert in the morning. Watching all of this game, though, was really pushing it...)

Finally, Antonen urges all clubs to open their gates earlier so that fans can watch the home club take batting practice. As he says, this is "so easy, it shouldn't even count." The increased exposure to the local heroes will build fan loyalty, while the added expense of paying ushers and ticket-takers for an extra hour will be more than recouped from increased concession sales.

These two proposals, though, hardly redeem the shoddy thinking reflected in the rest of the list, or the outrageously misleading slant of the article describing baseball's "problems." USA Today should be ashamed of itself.

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