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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.