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March 29, 2004

6-4-3

Hard to Dampen the Joy

by Gary Huckabay

Back by popular demand, I bring you another installment of "Conversations With Dave," which are, in fact, not with Dave, but with someone not named Dave at all, who's not a stathead or blogger, or even a management consultant. The conversation was not transcribed perfectly, but Dave has had an opportunity to review and approve the final copy, to make certain he wasn't misrepresented.

* * *

Dave: "What should MLB do about this squeeze by the NCAAs? I remember a few years back, Spring Training got a Hell of a lot more coverage than it gets now, and it's all due to March Madness. It just sucks the minutes right out of the sportscast."

Gary: "I agree that it's a problem for MLB, but I don't know that they've got a whole heck of a lot of options. Players do need to tune up and get in shape, and the NCAAs do dominate coverage in a time when MLB used to get a lot of free advertising. Even Opening Day's been squished around. The Final Four's kind of like a Minor League version of the Super Bowl now--kind of like a big secular National Holiday, buoyed by two great American traditions: alcohol and gambling. Hard to fight that."

Dave: "Is there any way they can fight it?"

Gary: "I don't really think so, at least not without a major push that would have a bunch of both expense and risk. Baseball's already tried a bunch of stuff at the start of the season--ridiculous trips to Japan for a couple of quick games, expansion of the exhibition season into the home parks. They can keep going on those themes, I guess, but barring a major strategic investment into an overseas market--which I think they should probably do--I think it's best to marshal the resources elsewhere."

Dave: "Well, brackets are cool, no doubt about it."

Gary: "Hey, I entered one. Used a pair of dice and the seedings to determine my picks. I'm in the running in the BP Bracket."

Dave: "That's really sad. It's also better than you usually do in your baseball picks. At least in college ball, you can't pick the Padres."

Gary: "Funny guy. How are those Phil Plantier rookie investment cards working out?"

Dave: "What do you think's going to happen when the MLB broadcast contracts run out? You think there's going to be a bidding war? Ratings are down, games are on all over the place."

Gary: "I think there will be. There's still a prestige to having a major sport, and a core audience of people that are attractive to advertisers. CBS' programming hasn't really gotten all that much better, but they're making a lot more money since they got football back. I don't know if it's a simple causal relationship, but I think there's something there. I probably should call my TV genius and ask him. Make for an interesting column. I wouldn't be surprised to see NBC jump in with a significant bid. They're pretty much just twiddling their thumbs right now in terms of major sports, and with some major shakeups coming at the network with Friends and Tom Brokaw stepping down, some predictability may be worth a premium. But I'm not an expert on that."

Dave: "NBC Game of the Week, huh? I wonder who'd be Garagiola for a new generation. And who'd be Doug Harvey for 'Rules of the Game'?"

Gary: "No idea. I do wonder how much bundling MLB's going to want to do. MLB Advanced Media is doing some pretty cool stuff; for an organization that's been doing a pretty amateur job of marketing for most of my lifetime, they've come a long way in the last couple of years. The concentrated games, a little bit of innovation…they may decide they want to chew up more of the value chain, and vertically integrate. It might not be your father's Baseball Network."

Dave: "Who is baseball really competing with now?"

Gary: "Depends on the product. Radio, TV, Live, Internet, Buzz."

Dave: "People bitch about prices at the ballpark, but I think it's gotten better."

Gary: "Really? It is pretty steep for parking, concessions, etc."

Dave: "Yeah, but there's no one adding sawdust to the hamburger. In football, there's fewer plays than there used to be, and they sell the pathetic pre-season games for a fortune, and you have to buy them to buy the season tickets. And it's not like the beer and soda's cheap there. Movies have gone downhill faster than that."

Gary: "How ya figure?"

Dave: "It's not just that the movies suck, which they generally do. But prices are up there, too. 70 mm prints aren't available anywhere, the popcorn and drinks cost the same or more than they would at the ballpark, and you have to pay for parking more and more. But it's not just that. I paid $8.75 to see Spartan, which you recommended because you have no taste..."

Gary: "Spartan was good!"

Dave: "No. It sucked. It was like two hours of watching David Mamet stare at a mirror and admire his pores. As I was saying, I paid $8.75, and the movie theatre hit me with fifteen minutes of slide ads for pimply and plastic local realtors before the previews, then had the gall to run two minutes of advertisements in addition to all the trailers. I don't even watch ads at home, and I found myself scrambling for the TiVo remote. Pissed me off."

Gary: "You think MLB should be positioning itself differently?"

Dave: "If you mean standing up and actually advertising what they have on the field, yes. The steroid thing's a perfect example. You think anyone would care one whit if baseball hadn't spent 70 years cramming the sacredness of the record book down our throats?"

Gary: "I don't know for sure. I think there'd still be concern."

Dave: "Then you're a fool. Watch the NFL lately? Yes, they have a drug policy, but it's apparently something along the lines of stringent testing, following by immediate urine substitution. Look at those guys. Listen to them. The NFL's drug policy is a joke, the fans know, wave it off with a wink, and get back to their eight-hour Sunday addiction. But in baseball, a big black dude hits 73 home runs and doesn't kiss the press's ass, and he's fed to the media hordes like shrimp cocktail and Jack Daniels."

Gary: "You saying Bonds isn't getting a fair shake from the media because he's black? Or that he's using steroids?"

Dave: "I don't know if he's using steroids or not. Myself, I couldn't care less. But are you going to tell me that race doesn't enter into it? People embraced Mark McGwire like he was a victorious God, and people forget how cranky he could be to the press. Bonds is treated like some cross between a spoiled prodigy and a performance artist. Yes, I think it's because he's black. We've gotten to where we let people off too easily about being a racist. All some cracker has to do is get up, talk about the 'PC Police,' and say 'I'm not a racist,' and the story becomes 'He denied being a racist! Must be OK!' It's become too easy to be a prejudiced tool, and then claim victimhood on the altar of the fight against 'Political Correctness.' Forgive the strange wordplay, but let's call a spade a spade. The press is racist, and the press is the filter through which 99% of sports information is passed."

Gary: "How does this relate to marketing, though? MLB didn't have control over this; it's grandstanding congressmen who hauled Selig et al. in there. It's not as if Selig sent out Richard Ravitch to caterwaul at the press or something. It's not like Sandy Alderson, Rich Levin, or Bob DuPuy was trying to get this in the front of everyone's mind. It's an election year, and this is an easy topic--a one sided issue around which one can demagogue and get some air time. Politicians of all stripes and albuminous coatings can dig on that."

Dave: "True. It just feels like there's something else they could be doing. Hire some booth babes."

Gary: "Maybe the D-Rays should try that."

Dave: "They returning your calls yet?"

Gary: "Not in this lifetime. Or at least this regime."

Dave: "They're a better team than you think."

Gary: "They'll win 60."

Dave: "Oh. They're not a better team than you think."

Gary: "You have picks?"

Dave: "Phillies over Yankees. Milton grows up, he and Wolf shut down the lefty-heavy Yankee offense."

Gary: "A's over Phillies."

Dave: "Who are the A's going to lose to after going up 2-0 this year? Boston?"

Gary: "Do you really have enough friends to talk like that?"

Dave: "If it makes you feel any better, the Giants are going to finish under .500."

Gary: "It does. You get the tab this time."

Dave: "Wait--aren't you paid for the article you get out of this?"

Gary: "Sadly, yes. Thanks for lunch. I'll get the next one."

* * *

It's been a pretty bizarre couple of years for me, personally. I've been working two full time jobs since about June of 2002; one of those jobs has been as Executive VP of Prospectus Entertainment Ventures (PEV), the other as the Product Guru for a very exciting startup company that started in less than a garage, and is now filled with a bunch of really impressive people working very hard, much like BP. As much as I absolutely love both projects, I'm worn out. During the last 15 months, since that fateful meeting with Dave Pease where we decided to kick BP into high gear here, I've spent over 4,700 hours between the two projects. (Yes, I'm still married.)

But now my responsibilities are about to get a lot more serious. My wife is expecting our first child on Opening Day, so something has to give, and my management/administrative role at BP is going to be it. I'll probably end up writing more (much to the chagrin of our more discriminating readers), but my time commitment to BP will be dramatically reduced. I'll be following the Jazayerli/Woolner New Dad Career Path™ for at least the next year or so, while hopefully training the new kid to (a) hit left handed, and (b) get really comfortable wearing catcher's gear. I'll be writing as often as I can, and moving back in the direction of more quantitative pieces when I do have time to write.

On April 1st, Nate Silver will be taking over as EVP, doing lots of things he's not even aware of yet, each taking twice as long as he expects them to. I hope that all of you will be as generous with your kind words for Nate as you have been for me, both in person, and via all sorts of electronic communication.

That said, I wanted to take this opportunity to thank all the readers, clients, and partners of Baseball Prospectus for your overwhelming support, ideas, enthusiasm, and passion for the game. And as tacky as it might be, I want to single out Dave Pease, and thank him for a tireless dedication and sustained level of effort that is singularly impressive, and the core of everything we've been able to accomplish.

Thanks, everybody. The next piece of mine you read will probably have a baby picture in it. (And I guarantee you that the child will most definitely not be wearing the Little SF Giant outfit sent to us by someone in the Dodger front office who should be spending their time worrying about revenge.)

Gary Huckabay is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Gary's other articles. You can contact Gary by clicking here

Related Content:  Dave Pease,  The Artist,  The Who,  Baseball Jobs,  The Call-up

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