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November 1, 2006

Prospectus Today

Off the Field

by Joe Sheehan

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I had this idea that I was going to sift through all the leftover notes from a month of watching postseason baseball and put them into a column. I would guess that maybe half of the notes I jot down while watching games find their way into the pieces, and the rest just sit there. Some are made irrelevant by the course of the game, or look less important later than they did at the time. Some represent the beginnings of ideas that I just don't have the time to do justice to.

In looking back, there's not as much good material left on the cutting-room floor as I thought there was, so I'm going to skip it. Apparently, I do a better job of leaving the weak stuff behind on a day-to-day basis than I think I do, and yes, you're welcome to treat that sentence as a set-up line.

The biggest story I never got to last month was the apparent agreement on a new Collective Bargaining Agreement, the first agreement ever reached not only without a work stoppage but without any date for one being set. The negotiations didn't quite take place in the dark, but the cover of the postseason, the complete lack of brinksmanship, and the lack of wedge issues in play made it easy to have the talks in a low-profile fashion. The owners significant win in 2002, when they got the MLBPA to agree to a payroll tax and significant revenue sharing, left them without much to ask for. Meanwhile, the players find themselves the beneficiaries of large-scale revenue growth, with industry-wide expenditures on players rising even in the face of the above measures designed to slow that rise.

Put simply, there was no reason for a war. This negotiation wasn't about the core issues that the MLBPA had fought for in its early days, or defended ever since. They conceded that ground in '02, accepting restrictions on the free exchange of money for talent in exchange for…well, it's still not clear what. Having made that bed, however, there was little chance they could reverse those losses. The next CBA will be an extension of the previous one in structure and in practice.

In point of fact, the new CBA doesn't actually exist yet. The terms are listed in a memorandum of understanding that was released last week. That memorandum has formed the basis of the coverage, such as what Maury and Kevin have done here at BP. I'm inclined to wait to see the whole document before getting too deeply into the details, not least because I want to make sure it matches what we've seen, but also because I expect that we won't know what the effects of the new rules are until we see them in action for a year or two. The machinery of MLB is complex, and when you change a gear or two, the effects can be widespread. I expect that the Law of Unintended Consequences will rear its head at some point.

One area I have a significant problem with is the changes to the draft. In the tradition of the NFLPA and the NBAPA, the MLBPA sold out college students, high-school kids, and grade schoolers for years to come, trading away the limited leverage draftees have. Less money going to draftees means, in theory, more available for major leaguers. That doesn't make it right; the draft is problematic to begin with, a process that denies free-market rights to a thousand amateur baseball players a year for one reason: it's less expensive that way for MLB. The argument that the reverse-order draft enhances competitive balance is specious, and at best, a tertiary reason for its existence.

The MLBPA traded away the rights of non-members, without consulting those non-members, for its own monetary benefit. That's wrong, and they should be ashamed that they've trod the path previously worn by basketball players and football players.

The specifics are a topic for another day. The important point is that the deal is essentially done, and done without anti-marketing or borderline lying about finances or the kind of blue-ribbon innumeracy that marked past CBA negotiations. The general public, the people who really don't care about tax rates and split pools and the machinations of offseason deadlines, only know that there isn't going to be a strike or a lockout, and that they weren't subject to months of bickering among rich guys and very rich guys. That's an absolute good.

The idea that this agreement is just like 2002, when the players were browbeaten into submission by a media unable and unwilling to report complex issues and a public that simply didn't care, is wrong. There was rancor and deception and coercion in 2002, even if it ended short of a strike. There was none of that this time around, and for that, we have to thank both sides. Perhaps the players have still given up a lot of ground relative to 2001, but it appears that they've accepted that and will not be asking to return to an era when $100 million contracts were a frequent occurrence. The owners, for their part, didn't press their advantage. The thresholds for triggering luxury taxes will rise, and with them, the freedom of teams to raise payrolls without being taxed. That's a much less aggressive stance on lowering costs than they've taken in the past.

The two sides had an easy negotiation in front of them, and they took it. The benefits to the game as a whole are likely to far surpass what either side may have gotten by pushing for significant changes. Baseball is better for this deal being done.

The announcement of the agreement came right around the time another story was breaking, this about the ratings for the 2006 World Series. They were low; in fact, the '06 World Series had the lowest rating in history.

So what?

This story gets reported year after year after year, and it's completely irrelevant. The ratings for viewership on the Big Three/Big Four networks have been in decline for 30 years, and they're going to continue to slip. Nielsen ratings, once a bellwether of American tastes, are as significant now as the results of a call-in poll on a radio show. They've lost their meaning in a 300-channel universe where 99% of the quality exists above "13" on the dial. They don't matter in a world with podcasts and free online video and narrowcasting. People simply don't watch network television in anywhere near the numbers that they used to, and with each generation that is brought up to look elsewhere for entertainment, the importance of the networks-and the entity that measures their popularity-will continue to fade. Nielsen has a vested interest in making people think these numbers are meaningful, but they're not, and they haven't been for a while.

Let me run at this from another direction. If attendance is up, revenues are way up, regular-season inventory is way up, MLB Advanced Media is a cash cow, people are buying gear and the World Series television ratings are down, is the natural conclusion that baseball is in trouble, or that the presentation of baseball on television is driving people away? I know the latter is anathema to the people who present the game, but the poor caliber of network baseball telecasts is a constant theme in my inbox. People don't like Fox. They don't like the camerawork, the announcers, the constant noise, and the extra commercial time that pushed 4-2 games up against midnight in the east.

The people who make these decisions will tell you that the fans e-mailing me are an irrelevant to them. People who read Baseball Prospectus will watch the World Series no matter what; it's the rest of the world they're trying to attract. However, what if the way Fox presents MLB isn't just turning off the core, but also the average fan as well? Fox won't let baseball stand on its own, won't let the game-a great game-be the story. Fox presents baseball as if it's apologizing for the intrusion, just begging people to stick around. Baseball deserves better than that.

The Nielsen ratings will continue to set record lows in any case, but if you're convinced that they're the sign of a problem, it is worth your time to consider whether the problem is with the game, which is healthy by any other measure, or with the broadcaster.

Enough baseball on TV…I'm leaving this afternoon for some baseball in the sunshine. Thanks to a change in my schedule, I'm headed to Phoenix for a few days of Arizona Fall League games and a brief presentation at Baseball HQ's First Pitch Arizona, or as I call it, ShandlerFest. This will be my fifth year going to this, and it's always a lot of fun talking baseball and sitting in the sun with people who love the game. I've made a ton of friends through this event, and seen great baseball players before they became stars.

I'll have a full report from the AFL when I get back.

--

The AFL trip is a break for me, coming off a month in which I wrote as much as I do in any two months combined. I spend so much time at my laptop in October that I tend to answer more of my reader mail, and I end up in exchanges with readers and the things I write reflect that feedback, October is a dialogue, not a monologue, and I'm grateful for that exchange.

Beyond my own work, I'm proud that BP covered the postseason as thoroughly as it ever has, with the previews, the analysis from people like Jay Jaffe and Christina Kahrl, the diaries by Kevin Goldstein and Steven Goldman and others, the coverage Nate Silver did from Detroit and St. Louis as part of our partnership with Sports Illustrated. I would put the caliber of our postseason coverage this year up against anyone else's.

One of the great things about BP, and this goes back to the first books we sold in 1996, is that once people are exposed to what we do, they tend to stick around. I know there's probably some maketing term for this, but all I know is that we've managed to grow steadily for more than a decade, first through the books, then via exposure in the mainstream, then the transition to a pay model on the Web, and now with additional books like Mind Game and Baseball Between the Numbers.

Because we have success in keeping people around, we spend a lot, and I do mean a lot, of time trying to put BP in front of new eyes and ears. Whether it's Will and I on ESPNews, or just about everyone on a radio station near you, or BP content in SI and in the New York Sun, or BP stats being quoted by your local beat writer, we put an astounding amount of time and energy into finding the next BP reader, because we believe that we can enhance that person's enjoyment of baseball if we can just get them to notice us.

All of the TV and radio and print media we do pales in comparison to word of mouth. That's not just a BP thing; people simply listen to their friends more closely, trust them more readily, than they do any other source. The biggest weapon we have in our arsenal isn't access to TV and radio, it's a group of satisfied readers who like what we do and have friends who like baseball. After all, whether it's a softball team or a fantasy league or your three brothers, baseball is a game that we experience as part of larger relationships. I'm going to Phoenix this weekend because watching baseball and talking about it with friends is arguably the pinnacle of the fan experience.

What I'm asking you to do today is to be a part of our efforts to grow by sharing something you enjoy about baseball with a friend. There's a link at the top right of our front page to gift subscriptions. I am asking you, if you like what we do here and you have a friend who doesn't read us but who you think would enjoy us, to click that link and buy that person a subscription to BP. Spread the word by just one person, and let us take it from there.

You don't have to like Joe Sheehan to do this. Maybe Prospectus Today is just what you read if you have a few extra minutes after you've soaked up Kevin's prospect analyses and Jim Baker's latest bits of genius. Maybe you read BP for the hardcore analysis of Dan Fox and Nate Silver. Maybe you've been a Christina Kahrl fan since the Clinton administration. Maybe Will Carroll dropped you enough information during the year to push your fantasy team to the top.

There's a lot of talent on this stage, and I'm just asking for a bigger room in which to play. I'm not going to make a habit out of this, and I'm certainly not going to hold it against anyone who doesn't like the idea. However, it doesn't take many of you doing this to make a difference to us, and I'm convinced that it's worth asking. If you enjoy BP, if you think we make your experience as a baseball fan better, than share that by buying one gift subscription for one friend. Give us a chance to convince them, and I guarantee you we'll do our part.

Thanks for listening, and thanks for another terrific season. I'll be back next week with news from the AFL.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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