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September 22, 1997

The Cactus League: Don't Bet On It

Spring training success isn't always a good sign

by Chaim Bloom

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The Week In

There's a certain pall that starts to hang over me about the 15th of September. The pennant races (or lack thereof) are coming to a head, a couple of ballplayers are nearing milestones or chasing records, and the more casual fans are paying a little bit more attention to games between teams headed for the postseason. You'd think this combination of events would make someone like me delirious at the very least; I spend more time on baseball in December than most people spend during August. But things don't work out that way.

There's a certain feeling that hits people on Sunday afternoons near sunset -- that sudden realization that the weekend's over and you have to go to work tomorrow. I get that same feeling this time of year about baseball. The Dark Time of the NFL, NBA, NHL, and, worst of all, the dreaded fetid behemoth of college basketball is nearly upon us. The Dark Time has already begun, with ESPN's baseball coverage all but vanished from weekend schedules. Pointless and banal footage of college football winds up chewing up the better portion of what should rightfully be Rey Ordonez time on SportsCenter.

For the past three and half years, sports fans have been whining and moaning about baseball's "demise." More than one of these various pundits have pointed to the basketball courts in the inner cities filled with kids playing basketball, and decried the lack of similar interest in baseball among young people -- particularly African-American young people. I think there is some small kernel of truth to this, and as best as I can tell, it largely comes back to baseball's management void -- both past and present.

I'm not talking about the failure of baseball to find a real commissioner -- that problem is more of a symptom than a disease. I'm talking about the lack of any sort of a coherent idea about where baseball is going, and where it should be going. Each of the major sports has been madly expanding their seasons' lengths during the past couple of decades in an attempt to capture more of the sports fans' discretionary spending dollar. MLB has recently added an additional round of playoffs; the NFL has added 2 extra games, bye weeks, and played up laughably bad exhibition games as legitimate contests; and basketball and hockey have repositioned their regular seasons as nothing more than warm-ups for the championship tournament in the Spring.

Who cares, right? Well, don't you find it interesting that the three leagues with significant overlap in their schedules have been pretty successful using this strategy, while with baseball, the results have been significantly less impressive? Baseball has brought in a few extra bucks with the extra round of playoffs, but in response its core fan base has largely spent its time bitching and moaning about the bastardization of the postseason. The NFL, NBA, and NHL have all seen phenomonal growth in their revenues and TV ratings, particularly during the regular season, while baseball's drawn roughly the same-sized audience as TNN's "Return to Hazzard" miniseries.

I submit that baseball's failure to take advantage of the huge growth we've seen in entertainment spending during the past several years is directly attributable to its marketing failures. Baseball has pinned its entire marketing strategy on one linchpin for the past sixty years. That linchpin is tradition. They've milked tradition to death, and now it's jumped up and bitten baseball right in the hindquarters. Sepia-toned footage has been baseball's bread and butter for three generations, and it's been a decent cash cow, but at this point, it stands as the greatest challenge confronting baseball's leadership. Throughout history, any company that bases its strategy on tradition eventually gets its clock cleaned. Baseball is still making buggy whips here.

So,realign? Hardcore fans and the media yell and scream in response to discussions that even hint at the tiniest change, much less the real changes themselves. Want to increase the size of the league? Listen to the fans and media reflexively lament the lack of quality pitching, as if they were even mildly capable of distinguishing quality hitting from poor pitching. MLB is backed into a strategic corner, and as a result they're completely paralyzed. They feel they have to do something in order to revitalize public interest in their product. You can debate whether or not they really have a crisis on their hands, but it's clear that they believe they do.

What, then, to do? Baseball seems intent on battling the other major sports rather than looking at the larger entertainment market -- and I don't understand why. First, MLB needs to examine the nature of their fan base. They're noisy, they're largely arrogant and traditionalist, and they're adamant about not changing their ways. They're also extremely opinionated, risk-averse, and downright chintzy. In short, the typical long-term baseball fan is pretty much a crappy customer. What baseball needs to do is understand that these people are addicts. If you're reading this web site, it's unlikely that any changes that MLB makes is going to drive you away. Bud Selig could mandate a DH for everyone but outfielders, require players to play while dressed like John Popper, and change all uniforms to look like the White Sox' atrocities from the 70's, and you'd probably still watch. You might gripe about the bastardization of the game, but eventually, you'd be spellbound once more.

When you're dealing crack, you can afford to use the behavioral patterns of your clientele to your advantage. In my opinion, if MLB is going to realign, it should radically realign, if for no other reason than to improve the caliber of play on the field and mitigate travel expenses. Rivalries grow out of games that are played, not the current alignments or potential religned ones. I could see a vicious rivalry between Tampa and New York ten years from now. All it takes is a couple of brushbacks, a pennant race, a 1-0 17-inning win in September, and you've got yourself a bitter rivalry. MLB should also adopt a compromise DH plan across both leagues. Someone suggested the pairing of a DH with a specific pitcher; that's sort of a neat idea, and deserves at least a look in some experimental league. I know some people detest the DH and the American League in general, but from a business point of view, this is a no-brainer. Revenue and offense are very highly correlated, and a financially vibrant game is good for the fans. If you hate the DH, learn to deal with it.

Keep in mind that I'm making the same intellectual missteps that baseball's management is guilty of. These changes are not guaranteed to bring in the elusive casual fan -- in fact, I don't know if MLB's even researched this issue adequately. I am confident that these changes won't offend the long-time fans enough to force them away, and it's possible that these changes could draw a few more fans, but quite frankly, I don't understand why they would. People that don't like baseball don't like baseball; changing peripheral facets of the game isn't likely to do much. I can't see a 26-year old African-American professional female who barely knows the game exists saying 'At long last! The Rangers and Astros are in the same division! Now I'll start watching and going to baseball games!' To turn this example around, there's nothing David Stern could possibly do to make me more interested in watching basketball. Why should I expect Bud Selig to do it with baseball?

Baseball's product is inherently different than any of the other major sports. It's also very different from movies, live theatre, concerts, tv, radio, and all its other competitors. Trying to market baseball without understanding and adapting to its distinctive nature is naive at best, and disastrous at worst. Instead of concentrating on the semantics and minutiae of the system, why not address the real issues? Let's concentrate on the product of the on-site MLB experience for a moment. When was the last time that you went to a baseball game and felt like you got your money's worth, and left the park thinking you'll be a repeat customer? This doesn't happen to me very often, nor do I think it happens to most people. We reflexively shell out $7 or more for parking in a dangerous, crowded lot; vendors inside the park charge roughly two or three times market value for food, beverages, and souvenirs. Do the owners really think this isn't going to translate into hostility from fans?

I humbly submit that an MLB club could make a HELL of a lot more money by positioning itself as a low-cost, customer-friendly alternative to competing sources of entertainment. Are MLB clubs so bloated with overhead that they couldn't make a significant profit from selling a legitimately great hot dog for $2 instead of $4? Of course not. $3.75 for a 32-oz coke in a plastic cup? All that's going to do is either make customers angry or drive them to alternatives. Charge $1.50. Build your customer base. Hell, have sections that cost $2 more, and provide open soda fountains -- encourage people to bring their own cups, and let them drink their fill. The $.99 Kidney-Buster Gulp hasn't hurt 7-11 stores too much, has it now? The 20/80 rule in business applies to baseball as much as it does to any enterprise. If you satisfy the customer, or better yet, delight them, they'll come back. If you treat them as captives and try to shake them down, it makes it that much more difficult to build a good relationship that you can count on for years to come.

MLB owners have a lot of things they can sell at a relatively low marginal cost. How about an expansion of the minor league system to include taxi squads? I'd love to see something comparable to a Fast-A league that played in the same stadia as the big leagues. Let them play a 6-inning game before warmups and batting practice. Give people a chance to come and see some young kids play, and gives them a reason to stay in the park longer. For these games, there would be no need for the 2:25 between innings either: they could make it 1:30, and these exhibition games can be over in 90 minutes. The marginal cost of providing such games? Very low. And a lot of fans would value these games highly, but then I know a lot of people who might leave on some days after the taxi squad game.

How does any of this relate to my impending doom over the arrival of the Dark Time between the end of the world series and the start of spring training? Simple. If MLB does a proper job of marketing their products, the media will pay more attention to them, thereby mitigating the early arrival of abominations like College Football Gameday. If not, there's going to be a lot more of "Mel Kiper, draft expert," on ESPN in the middle of baseball season. Nothing against Mel, but that's a bad thing. I'm not against radical realignment or significant change -- I just don't see the evidence of any significant ills in baseball, nor any evidence to suggest that any realignment plan would fix them if they did exist.

Here's hoping baseball can get its management in order before baseball starts losing spotlight time to the new Modified Stableford Scoring Bowling league. In a world where NASCAR can not only be regarded as a sport, but can get popular north of the Mason-Dixon line, this is a legitimate concern.

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