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May 7, 2004

Prospectus Today

Webgate

by Joe Sheehan

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I got more than a few e-mails yesterday about Webgate, MLB's plan to, as put by most people, desecrate the bases with a promotional graphic for the upcoming Spider-Man 2 movie. It's a moo point--"Friends" tribute--now, as MLB has backed away from the logoed bases in the face of overwhelming fan and media backlash.

During the day that the plan was in place, I couldn't get worked up about it, in the same way that I couldn't get worked up about the ads that appeared on uniforms during the season-opening series in Japan. While I know that some people consider these things to be an affront, as well as an aesthetic nightmare, I consider neither to be the case. Certainly uniform and base ads are less intrusive in person than ballpark signage or between-innings advertising blasted at 110 decibels. For those watching at home, ads superimposed on the backstop on every pitch are clearly a greater incursion on the experience. If MLB could mine one more revenue source without detracting from the game--and six-by-six painted squares certainly pale in comparison to the profile of the other marketing messages being conveyed--then more power to them.

As you might expect, the implementation of the plan was counterproductive. Rather than divide the money equally among all 30 teams, or even use this as a chance to throw a few extra bucks in the direction of the blessed small-market teams, MLB was reportedly giving the Yankees and Red Sox $100,000 each, the 13 other teams home for the promotion weekend $50,000 each, and the 15 visiting teams nothing more than the chance to stand on decorated bases. How distributing marginal revenue generated by MLB's central office in an manner favorable to high-revenue teams addresses MLB's stated goal of narrowing revenue disparity is beyond me.

Moreover--and I'll touch on this just briefly, because Rob Neyer got there first and nailed it--the doublespeak in the announcement was insulting to anyone whose IQ is within shouting distance of their body temperature. Spinning the partnership between MLB and Sony Pictures as an outreach program, MLB Chief Operating Officer Bob DuPuy said, in a press release, "It's part of our effort to market the game... to a whole new demographic: kids."

MLB marketing executive Jacqueline Parkes managed to be less believable and more cloying:

"We needed to engage [kids] in relevant and meaningful ways... The reason we embarked on this relationship with Sony and "Spider-Man 2" is the fact that the brand equity of Spider-Man and Major League Baseball marry up perfectly."

The idea that young people who aren't fans of baseball are going to see some paint on a base and suddenly be interested in the sport is as ludicrous as the idea that a player would choose a new team soley based on the school system in a city. "Relevant and meaningful ways"? Where's the balls to stand up and say, "We had a chance to make a few million and we took it. It's a little red on the bases for three days; deal with it"?

And if this was such a tremendous opportunity to reach the kids, why walk away from it so quickly? Certainly MLB has pursued bad ideas with gusto even in the face of opposition, albeit not this vehement. Abandoning the original plan just reinforces the point: DuPuy and Parkes were lying through their teeth, and this had as much to do with mining new baseball fans as it did with ice-fishing rights in the Yukon.

While it lived, however, the idea of selling the bases didn't bother me because it was so minor in comparison to the ways in which the powers that be do real damage to the game. It's insignificant when contrasted with the never-ending drumbeat of negativity that comes from the nominal voice of the sport.

To wit: Hours after abandoning the plan to advertise on the bases, Bud Selig participated in a press conference in Oakland, this in his first trip to the city as commissioner. Quotes from it were passed to me by BP's James Click. During the session, the commissioner referred to the A's owners:

"These people find themselves in a very uncomfortable position of playing in a park that's now 38 years old and just can't generate the revenue to keep its players and be competitive."

You want to get upset about something? Get upset about that. Forty-eight hours after announcing a plan that was purportedly designed to help create baseball fans, the game's leader goes to a place where one of its most successful franchises plays and tells people, "Don't bother supporting this team by coming to the park, they can't be competitive unless you give us hundreds of millions in public money."

So MLB is so desperate for new eyeballs that it would implement a cockamamie scheme involving painted bases to bring people in, while at the same time telling young A's fans who might dare to come out to the park for baseball not to bother.

More Selig:

"I know people will say, 'Well, there are ballparks that haven't served as panaceas.' Nobody is suggesting in Milwaukee, in Pittsburgh, in Detroit, in Cincinnati, or anywhere else that it was a panacea, but the point that people make... Without the park they had no chance to stay, they had no chance to compete."

The Oakland A's have been, by any reasonable measure, one of the most successful franchises in baseball over the past four years. Their well-documented struggles in the postseason have served to distract from this fact, but four postseason appearances, three division titles, and four final-game losses in four Division Series are a record that 25 other teams would happily embrace.

While the unable-to-compete A's have run roughshod through four seasons, the four cities above have spent more than $1 billion on new stadia, in which the four baseball teams have combined for a 713-1067 record in 11 team-seasons. At no point has any of the four teams been in a pennant race, or even finished above .500 in any season.

The evidence that the A's do not need a new stadium to compete is overwhelming, just as the evidence that the Twins don't need a new stadium to compete is overwhelming. Moreover, the evidence that a new ballpark drives success is mixed; whatever correlation was seen in the mid-1990s has certainly weakened in the 2000s, to the point where a new stadium is contraindicative of success. (I'm not arguing that there is causation. However, "a new park causes teams to lose" is a much more defensible position, based on what has happened, than the one that says the A's cannot compete without a new stadium.)

Those weren't even my favorite quotes. I like this one best:

"A franchise is what revenue it can generate."

Not championships, players, fans, history, managers, moments, memories... revenue. That's what a franchise is. The amount of money it brings in.

I've been writing about baseball for close to 10 years now, and I've written some scathing indictments of Bud Selig. I don't know that I could ever come up with one sentence more damning than that one.

"A franchise is what revenue it can generate."

It's been evident for years that Selig doesn't like baseball players. The way in which he'd handled consecutive Collective Bargaining Agreements was one thing, but the way in which the game he helms steadfastly refuses to sell its stars, to market the product--those players--the way it should be marketed, and instead relies on an assortment of structural gimmicks to increase interest, is the clincher.

Putting Spider-Man 2 logos on the bases and calling it an attempt to reach younger fans is an act of idiocy, but moreso, it's an act that shows how much Selig and DuPuy don't understand what their mandate is. MLB will sell the on-deck circles, the bases and its soul, but it will not sell its players.

It's clear that the people currently running Major League Baseball have absolutely no idea what they're doing, and that this ignorance is manifesting itself in ever more bizarre ways with each passing year. Consider the cycle of the last decade, essentially the time in which Selig has run the game:

  • A desire to sustain as much of the revenue generated by the 1990-93 CBS television contract leads to realignment, a wild card, and an extra round of playoffs. To this day, the Division Series remains a bastard child, unwanted by broadcast partners, sometimes shown only regionally, sometimes shunted to third-tier cable networks, sometimes scheduled around early-season NFL matchups.

  • The presence of the wild card and smaller divisions leads not only to a mostly uninteresting round of playoffs, but diminishes baseball's regular season dramatically. While wild-card "races" generate little interest, they serve to eradicate thrilling showdowns between truly great teams. Moreover, the lowered barriers to playoff entry allows mini-dynasties--and one real one--to emerge, fanning the flames of "competitive imbalance" arguments.

  • With interest in the regular season flagging because of the first set of structural changes, interleague play is introduced to stem the tide. The gimmick takes hold in approximately 20% of the games, the ones in which geographic rivalries exist. The popularity of those series and the favorable scheduling of all interleague games--primarily weekends in the summertime--allows MLB to claim that the concept is much more popular than it actually is. Even now, interleague play is largely driven by the nine matchups which take place in every season, with the other games scheduled as afterthoughts, the chorus to the divas in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles.

  • Interleague play's one clear effect is to diminish the allure of the World Series and the All-Star Game. As opportunities to see each league's stars play each other proliferate, the Midsummer Classic becomes an afterthought, an exhibition along the lines of the NFL's postseason All-Pro game. Interest continues to decline through 2002, when the Little League, everyone-plays style of managing fostered by the apathy leads to an embarrassing 7-7 tie, as both squads run through their pitching staffs in 11 innings.

  • Rather than address the root cause of the 2002 fiasco--diminished interest to a loss of its uniqueness--Selig and MLB embark on a two-phase plan to ensure that nothing like it ever happens again. First, they expand All-Star rosters to 32, while also changing the voting system and forcing 12 pitchers onto each roster. This further diminishes the cachet of being an "All-Star" while doing nothing to make the game special again.

    The second phase involves tying home-field advantage in the World Series to the outcome of the All-Star Game, in the hopes of making it more competitive. Of course, what made the All-Star Game competitive in its heyday was the separation of the leagues, a system that Selig has effectively eliminated in his term of office. Adding a dubious incentive that might effect a half-dozen players wouldn't begin to make up for turning the American and National leagues into two conferences of MLB.

The All-Star Game was killed by interleague play, which was made necessary by declining interest in the regular season, which was diminished by realignment and the wild card. And these are the decisions Selig is most proud of in his time in office. Each decision had clear negative effects, and each decision begetting a subsequent decision that had even more negative effects, while all the while Selig claimed them as his most popular creations.

Much as he now claims the third-most successful team in baseball needs a new stadium to be successful.

Under Selig's lack of leadership, the baseball industry has meandered from one short-term solution to the next, with no coherent strategy beyond blaming the players, chasing public money and maximizing the size of the next check. Baseball deserves better than that. Not the fans, not the players, not the owners. Baseball does. I am convinced that I could grab six names at random from my address book, put them in charge of MLB, and in four years have a going concern that would put the current state of baseball to shame.

The key element that is missing in MLB that I can find in spades in my cohort is a willingness to get people excited about baseball. The game needs leaders who will go to Oakland and say, "This is the greatest story in the game. You people should get out to the ballpark and watch Eric Chavez and Tim Hudson and Mark Mulder. They're All-Stars, they win every year, and your owners made commitments to them. Of course, it's affordable. A night at the ballpark is cheaper than a night at any other major sporting event; you can bring the kids, have a dog and a Coke, and cheer your heads off for $60!"

That's the message people need to hear. They don't need to hear a pitch for public money, and they damn sure don't need logos on the bases. They need to hear a convincing, consistent message that watching baseball is a great way to spend a day, that following your local team is a rewarding, fun experience and that the standings don't lie: teams in cities big and small can win divisions and championships.

If Mr. Selig and Mr. DuPuy cannot communicate that, then baseball doesn't need them. They're just in the way, and the longer they remain in place, the further they take baseball from where it should be.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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