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July 29, 2003

Breaking Balls

Expanding Baseball's Reach

by Derek Zumsteg

I was up in Juneau, Alaska this weekend for my Grandpa's funeral service. Juneau's in southeast Alaska, a town of maybe 30,000, if you include the surrounding towns, and don't count the thousands of cruise tourists who walk up and down two, three blocks, buying the same touristy junk they can get in Jamaica (it's so bad the paper prints a cruise ship schedule on the front page--9,160 people expected Tuesday the 29th--along with the weather and tides). It's a two-hour flight from Seattle, and if you thought Seattle was too rainy, Juneau's not going to be your town. It's entirely green, and mountainous to the point that the highway stops--there's no way to drive out, everything's flown in or comes in by ship. And people on the street wear Mariners gear.

My grandpa was a Mariners fan, and we'd talk a little baseball when I visited, but I'd never given this much thought before. Seattle's the closest city with a team, but that's not why Seattle's the unofficial team of the fan on the street. Way back in the days when Seattle was an awful franchise run on a skinflint's budget, Juneau had even fewer people, so their media exposure consisted in large part of rebroadcast Seattle television, and unless they had satellite dishes, that was the only baseball they'd have available.

This seems small, I know--30,000 people is no big deal either way. But without knowing it, and not investing any money, the Mariners were building a fan base in Juneau, Ketchican, and so on. Juneau's only got 30,000, but hitting the big population bases of Alaska gets you up to 500,000--and they've got a market almost half the size of the Milwaukee metro area. These are people who when they hit the lower 48 are almost certain to go through Seattle, where the team can shake them down for more money. Fox Sports Northwest can squeeze a little more money for their media rights knowing their broadcasts in Alaska are going to draw.

The Mariners today make money off the whole region due to quirks of media established long before they had an organization smart enough to exploit those quirks. In the same way, Ted Turner built the Atlanta Braves a wide fan base by making them the centerpiece of TBS programming and getting that channel carried everywhere he could. And with satellite television, he could pick up one fan at a time anywhere in the country.

There are over 290 million people in the U.S. Only above half of those have a team in their metro area. A lot more have regional teams, of course, but there are tons of people out there who are in one way or another, up for grabs. Teams only have a few minor league teams they can use to try and build affiliations with, and the rest has to be access and marketing--setting up radio feeds, getting games on televisions across the country any way you can, handing out flyers, whatever. Unfortunately the way baseball has things set up, teams are handcuffed.

Say the Expos move to Oregon and are run by, uh, me. I want to make the team popular, and I'm willing to run it at a huge loss for a while to get people attached to the new team. I want to offer free Internet radio feeds to capture a huge attractive audience of affluent people. Can't do it, because MLB Advanced Media's running the Internet game, and I have to be content with the money and exposure I get with their pay-for-play packages. I can try and reach the most ears with actual radio coverage, and advertise to make sure people know they can listen in, but it's going to be extremely hard for me to crack the tiny markets and pick off those guys I wanted to get to through Internet feeds. I can set up a loss-leader television deal, start my own channel and try and go superstation, but there are huge costs involved and I just bought a baseball team, which puts me (roughly) $200 million dollars in debt, assuming a purchase price of $200 million, plus I'm going to be dealing with baseball's impossibly complex and wacky blackout rules. I'm SOL, domestically.

Baseball's becoming more and more of an international game, and for once should take the lead among sports innovation. Baseball should make every effort to get games on in countries where baseball's played, particularly in the Pacific Rim. Live or rebroadcast, there should be a baseball game on every day in Seoul and Sydney, a well-produced advertisement for the sport. Baseball has a massive resource pool to get these games on the air somewhere in these markets and try and build an international fan base.

In the meantime, I'm going to follow the Yankees and Mariners and try and get lucrative TV deals signed to show games in Japan, and license broadcast rights to anyone in the world who wants to put the games on the air, no matter where, or how. Baseball's an acquired taste, and I'd like to introduce as many people as possible to it, and at the same time try and win their loyalty. Many people are fans of badly run franchises that haven't competed in decades because those are the teams they grew up with. If baseball can't agree to go out and try to win market by market, even if just to make baseball a possible career choice for foreign athletes, it'll have be the teams that step in.

The fortunes of teams are made and lost during the season, but the fortunes of franchises run decade to decade, in long-term planning and family loyalties. They're also forged in the loyalties of tiny communities outside the metropolitan areas, like Juneau, where my Grandpa spent almost all his life, watching the Mariners ghosting around the field as the signals bounced around the mountains that surrounded the town.

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