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August 23, 2004
The Best Commissioner of All-Time
Bud Selig's the most successful commissioner baseball has ever had. The owners offered him an extension to 2009 because he richly deserves it.
Set aside for a minute your baggage: the steamers of ill will, the wardrobe of dishonesty, the carry-on of personal distaste. The commissioner's job is to advance the interests of the owners he represents, and Selig has done this better than any other. We should no more look at Selig as a representative of a fan's interests than we would expect Dr. Adbul Kalam, President of India, to look after the jobs of San Jose tech industry workers. We should count ourselves lucky that Selig is a fan of the sport at all.
Are the owners better off now than they were 12 years ago, when Fay Vincent found himself on the street with two dozen-some knives in his back?
There's almost no disputing that they are. Selig has led baseball in a series of labor battles against the players, and they are dramatically weaker now than they were twelve years ago. Baseball has a salary cap with a hard number behind it that has deterred every team but the Yankees from going past it. Baseball has revenue sharing. The league is now exercising a great deal more control over what draft picks are signed for, and that's money right back into the owners' pockets.
Baseball makes far more money now from national television revenues than it used to, even adjusting for inflation. While the Baseball Network of 1994-1995 was a flop, in part due to the labor action, it was a shot at getting baseball a direct share of national broadcast advertising revenues. Since then, baseball's had a series of extremely lucrative deals with Fox and ESPN that mean more money for every team.
Past commissioners have sometimes shown independence that goes against the interest of their constituents. Kennesaw Landis, for instance, was known as a player's commissioner who delighted in upholding their appeals on whatever pretext he could find. Vincent's modest independence cut his term short after three years. Selig's done none of that, allowing teams and owners almost free range to invest in more than one team or loan money to each other. We can argue about conflicts of interest hurting the game, but if you're an owner, and you want to do something that Major League Baseball's rules prohibit, Selig's your commissioner. It's part of how he's built such a strong consensus and support. Would anyone vote for a senator who actively tried to stick it directly to you, the constituent, and openly enjoyed doing so?
Selig doesn't get much credit for baseball's modernization, but Major League Baseball Advanced Media took over the web presence for all 30 teams under his reign. Where every team had to spend their own money, build their own features, deal with customers and tech headaches, MLBAM now runs a single point of presence they don't have to worry about. You'd think innovation would suffer with one company instead of thirty teams with different ideas, but the opposite's been true. MLB.com today offers all kinds of great services over the internet for remarkably reasonable prices. MLB.tv is a great tool for any obsessed columnist like me, and the radio broadcasts (when they work) give fans anywhere a chance to listen to games they wouldn't otherwise see. They're doing great work that, to my eye, blows away what you can get from any other major sport. This kind of advanced presentation and accessibility is what we always clamored for from baseball, and while the motives for doing it are to make a profit, as fans we all benefited from this. The only hidden cost has been the disappearance of free streaming broadcasts. They weren't going to be around, though--browsing the internet today, it's hard to find commercial radio stations offering free streaming without requiring you to share the costs in some way, even if it's just donating your bandwidth to broadcast to others (Chaincast Networks, for instance).
Baseball has more playoff rounds. His owners seem to believe this is good for late-season attendance. I don't agree with that, but I'm not an owner so it doesn't matter. Even if it didn't, more playoff rounds means more national TV revenue, because their partners pay a lot to broadcast those games, which means more money for everyone.
And on the amazing accomplishment side, the stadiums. Oh, the stadiums. I almost made out a table of what each team made off with during the Selig years, but thought better of it. I'll say that as recipients of public funds, I don't think there's ever been a more lucrative time for owners than Selig's reign. Owners that didn't get subsidies benefit indirectly from revenue sharing, so everyone has a motive to support his drives to get these beasts built.
What's really gone badly for his constituents? And I don't mean public relations issues. What went wrong that hurt them? Montreal's hurt them, but I think there's a (false) perception that baseball wasn't going to work in Montreal anyway, so if anything, Selig's seen as only making a bad situation worse. If stalling to get the best deal on a new stadium and ownership group works, then it'll all have been a wash. Contraction almost got a couple of owners a ton of money, and it was Selig who had to do the explaining anyway.
Even for us--has baseball really fared worse for having Selig at its head for twelve years? Certainly, I'd like to have had someone with more vision, smarter and more personable, who could have forged an alliance with the players to avoid conflict, boosted the game's image, and given me free tickets.
Where was that magical being going to come from? These owners wanted someone to continue to beat up on the player's union. Bart Giamatti, for all his teary-eyed love of the game, was brought in to bust heads, and Fay Vincent was only commissioner because Giamatti died. Given that the owners were determined to hire a labor hawk they knew and trusted, no one was going to be that magical haloed figure who would restore baseball to glory.
I'm unsure that's even possible. Sure, in the 1940s, America had three sports (baseball, boxing, and horse racing), and baseball was the greatest of them. Today, it's not the national pastime as much as it's a national pastime. As media's fractured, so have our sports, and when you look at what the kids are playing, you can see there may be a future where baseball's not one of several with football, basketball, NASCAR, hockey (in whatever form survives), soccer, lacrosse, and a host of others. It's hard to blame Selig for baseball's decline when it has done so well in spite of the labor fights he's been behind. Attendance recovers each time, teams are doing well--all we really can say is that these labor actions happened, and baseball hasn't been hurt by them. While I'd like to think that someone more progressive might have done even better, there's really no evidence that the most enlightened mind would have been able to make a lasting labor peace, or that baseball would have been rewarded with increased attendance for that--or for better outreach--any more than it was for the newest generation of new mallparks.
The biggest impact the labor deals have had on us is that revenue sharing has done much for owners and little for fans. It removes incentives for team innovation on and off the field, it subsidizes incompetence. I agree with all of that, and yet--revenue sharing has only in the last bargaining agreement seemed to have an effect on baseball at large, by taking the money from the middle-tier player. While these last few bargaining agreements have moved vast sums of money from place to place, they haven't made smart teams dumb, or dumb teams smarter. Teams with innovative ownership groups, or those willing to invest in their teams, or both, have remained so, and the Devil Rays didn't spend their extra money by going back to college for a master's degree that might have helped them with their deductive reasoning skills.
Bud Selig, the most successful commissioner in baseball history, earned that title by aggressively and successfully representing the interests of his owners. How sad is that?