Tuesday, October 24, 2006

How Deep Are Your Roots?

Major League Baseball and the Players Association have signed a new five year deal that, if nothing else, is noteworthy for the reportedly peaceful atmosphere in which it was negotiated and concluded. Everybody’s happy! No work stoppages. No rancor. No eleventh-hour brinksmanship.

On the other hand, no tackling of the other big issues facing baseball such as a salary cap or some variation, ongoing drug issues, the length of the season, the playoffs structure, The WBC or struggling franchises. This last matter is a particularly thorny issue when one hears claims regarding how flush all the teams in baseball are – big and small market – due to revenue sharing, luxury taxes, television contracts, and merchandizing revenues.

Overall, major league baseball set an attendance record this past season with over 76 million fans passing through the turnstiles. Beginning with the Commissioner, everyone is congratulating themselves on the health and prosperity of the game.

Listen to Detroit left fielder Craig Monroe on the subject: “Baseball is at an all-time high point right now. You've got low-market teams doing well and different teams winning every year. Getting this done couldn't have come at a better time."

I don’t know if I would agree with the assessment that “low-market teams [are] doing well”. Watching three or four thousand people rattle around in Dolphins Stadium on many nights is not my idea of doing well and I seriously doubt the Marlins’ players enjoy that atmosphere much. People aren’t exactly beating down the doors in Tampa Bay, Kansas City, Colorado, Pittsburgh or Oakland either. Attendance also fell dramatically in Baltimore and Washington last year. Losing will do that, but how do you explain the empty seats for the A’s, who have been consistent winners over the years? Speaking of turnout by the Bays, the Tampa version saw a very modest rise in attendance as some exciting young players began to reach the majors. Despite it all, however, that franchise remains a perennial loser mired in mediocrity. Colorado also fielded a young, competitive team this season but saw only a modest increase in attendance.

Washington was never a great baseball town and for all those fans who claimed to be starved for big league ball, an awful lot of them deserted the team rather quickly or found some other summer entertainment to satisfy their appetites. They can’t use losing as an excuse in the Nation’s capital; not only have they rarely known winning in their first and second incarnations (“First in peace; first in war….”) , but the Expos hardly had much of a winning tradition in their final seasons in Canada. Washington knew what it was getting. Some will blame the decline on the Nationals’ admittedly tired old excuse for a baseball stadium, but if you enjoy baseball and have missed having your own team for more than 30 years, a tired old stadium seems like a small price to pay. As I wrote when the franchise was awarded to Washington in the first place, they should have moved the Expos to Rehoboth Beach, DE, because that’s still where most of the people with money in DC can be found all summer anyway.

Some cities with relatively new stadiums have seen a one-season bounce in attendance at most. Even in relatively healthy Philadelphia, the team saw a drop of 600,000 people in 2005 following the opening of Citizens Bank Park the year before. The Phillies spent much of that second season wallowing in self-destruction only to resurrect themselves in August and September, too late by one game to make the playoffs. Attendance increased last season, but did not reach the level of that inaugural season despite another dramatic late season surge by the Phils and the presence of national sensation Ryan Howard. Prior to moving into their new home, the Phillies were a mediocre team playing in an awful stadium and attendance suffered. New digs will certainly bring ‘em in…but how long will them come simply if you build a new home? Pittsburgh hasn’t been very competitive on the field for quite some time now and while the consensus is they play in one of the most appealing venues in all of baseball, people are not showing up just for the surroundings.

Baltimore saw a mini rebellion of its long-suffering fans as roughly 1000 of them staged a mid-game walk-out towards the end of the season to protest the ownership of Peter Angelos. Some argued it was a publicity stunt by the ring leader, who had some commercial interest that allegedly would benefit from the press coverage, but the Orioles also drew 500,000 less people in 2006 than in 2005. Those other 499,999 people had nothing to gain by staying away except, perhaps, their sanity. Camden Yards has long been regarded as the granddaddy of retro stadiums and a great place to watch a ball game, but losing year after year is finally taking its toll. A new franchise 35 miles south certainly hasn’t helped matters.

Putting a winning team on the field normally improves attendance markedly. Detroit saw an increase of more than half a million at the gate during their resurgence in 2006. Still, there are a number of franchises that remain perennially stuck near the bottom of the pack in the standings and at the gate and despite revenue sharing, luxury taxes and other lucrative contracts, they cannot get over that hump. The explanations are complex and varied. Winning is the biggest key to success, but that success can be quite elusive if the team has an incompetent or worse ownership, free agents are unwilling to play in their climate or stadium, or if players perceive a clear lack of probability of making it to the post-season with a particular team’s current roster.

Some of these towns are simply not baseball towns. The cities that have successfully navigated the shoals of feast and famine generally have a rich tradition of baseball on which to draw when times are lean. The fans in Pittsburgh will be back when the team is competitive again. So, too, will the Orioles’ faithful.

On the other hand, Florida and Arizona, whose shrewd management managed to acquire free agents who put them over the top and who just as quickly rid themselves of these same players shortly thereafter, will never be good baseball towns. The Marlins’ owners were never really interested in building a baseball tradition in the first place; for the Wayne Huizinga’s of the world it was all about quick turnover of the franchise itself. No one is suggesting these guys operate at a loss (though overall franchise resale value and not year-to-year profitability is what matters to owners) but if a team wants fan loyalty it might help to show some of its own. Florida’s current ownership is at it again, trying to extort a new stadium from the local citizenry when what it really wants is to move to Las Vegas. Arizona’s attendance has declined by roughly a million, or one third, since it won the World Series. Big signings there preceded the championship season; big divestitures and near bankruptcy followed it. New owners took over a mere seven years after the team played its first game amidst all sorts of accusations regarding over $150 million of deferred compensation packages for players.

Why aren’t Denver, Miami and Phoenix good baseball towns? Part of the reason is they don’t have several generations who grew up fans of the game. There are no grandfathers and fathers passing down the lore and tradition of watching, say, the Diamondbacks. Heck, most of the current generation living in these towns just arrived there themselves within the last few years. Phoenix is just one huge refugee camp with “snowbirds” from the Northeast and Midwest swelling the ranks permanently rather than just for a visit.

Baseball fans in cities like New York, Boston and Philadelphia have generations of loyalty to draw on. Take the Phillies. It’s interesting to note that several commenters on this blog and others reside in far-off places like Portland, Oregon, or Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. No matter where they live, they remain connected to the home team as they understand the term “home”. Despite such distant locales, these fans grew up sitting by their fathers and grandfathers who were also Phillies fans. Baseball’s greatest advantage lies in its roots deep within our personal histories. The longer that history, the deeper the roots. Even when times are bad, the roots are there to sustain the franchise through thick and thin. On the other hand, no matter how retro the stadium and no matter how many pools, saunas and other diversions are part of the package, teams in places like Denver and Miami have no such tradition to draw on. They might see a jump in attendance and interest when the team does well, but there’s little that can sustain interest through the lean times…except football. Ask someone in Denver to choose between the Rockies and Broncos and you are likely to receive one long incredulous stare.

If the Rockies were to pull the stunt Robert Irsay pulled in Baltimore many years ago when he packed up the Colts and sneaked out of town under cover of darkness, there would be a few protests at first light and the city fathers would cry foul, but the good folks in Denver would soon get over their loss. Compare that to the people in New York who still lament the departure of the Dodgers and Giants. Admittedly, theirs is a dwindling number, but those of us in cities like Philadelphia can relate to their sense of undying loyalty and loss. After all, when a grandfather can tell his son he saw Babe Ruth play and his son in turn can say he saw Joe DiMaggio at the end of his career and Mickey Mantle at the beginning of his and his son grew up watching Derek Jeter, that is a long line that cannot be easily broken by a few down seasons or changes of address.


RickSchuBlues said...

Swing and a Miss is the New York Times Magazine of Phillies blogs.

Five years ago, Bud Selig & co. were actually interested in the progressive idea of 'retraction', but it was already too late. Baseball couldn't expect to undo its legion of mistakes without the threat of enormous backlash and lawsuits. It is stuck with its bad-egg franchises, and the best it can hope to do is move them around a little. But where, besides Vegas? Portland will never approve a taxpayer-finaced stadium. So, what's that leave? It probably leaves Latin American destinations like San Juan or Caracas, where the popularity of baseball is unrivaled. Perhaps this is the real purpose of the WBC, to gauge responses outside the English-speaking world, to acclimate fans to a more international backdrop for the game. Why would baseball continue to let its franchises rot forever in South Florida when they would have rabid support even farther south? Is it only politics which has so far prevented such a strategy?

Meanwhile, if baseball wants to congratulate itself on a job well done and wallow in complacency, just because they actually managed to get a labor agreement done, it's unbelievably short-sighted. They can spray champagne all they want about the attendance figures, but it's the TV ratings that should give them pause. Does anyone care about the postseason anymore? That's a big issue. The popularity of baseball in America appears to be predominantly *localized*, with an exception made for a few nationally popular teams like the Red Sox, Yankees, and Cubs. Those roots and bonds between fans and teams is something that even MLB can never mess up. But the loyalties are to the teams and not so much to the institution of baseball. The cheapening of the All-Star Game and the postseason has ensured that. In trying to create new sets of roots and bonds in latter-day growth areas like Arizona and Florida, MLB screwed itself. All it sees are more *markets* and frontiers to conquer and revenue to rake in, like it's some plastic fast-food chain, without realizing how it affects the overall quality and the unifying appeal of the sport - until they get a look at those TV ratings.

Let's put it this way: suppose the World Series was in a neutral site, like the Super Bowl. Think they'd sell out even one of the games? Think they'd even come close? And yet, fifty years ago, the answer would have been, of course. It was an event, then. It really isn't now. (Quick: name one quintessential World Series moment since Joe Carter's homerun. You have to think, don't you?) Who is Tommy Lasorda kidding? If baseball is removed from partisanship, nobody really gives a shit. And that's sad.

Oisín/Wizlah said...

RSB - I was about to say ALCS 2003 and 2004 - and then realised that's not the world series . . .

The question both of you raise is a good one - so good that I couldn't think clearly about it last night. My slightly less fuzzy thought this morning is that history and the culture of the sport may not grow interest in baseball, but it should at least be able to maintain the level of interest in it as a sport amongst its fanbase. Whilst I normally wouldn't be so conservative, the supposed innovations in the years since 1993 when baseball was worried about itself (not the fans) can't be said to have improved the situation, even if its hard to say whether they've definitively caused a problem.

Take the reorganisation of divisions and the wildcard - aside from polarising fans on the hometown 9 if they're in a division they can't hope to win (hello baltimore and tampa bay) its added a level of competition which only increases post-season interest *through* a more insular approach to fandom. Only the local fan cares for ALDS of Minnesota Vs As. Granted, you've got two extra fanbases watching, but more instances of sport does not preserve interest in sport as a whole. See the UEFA Champions League in Europe which has increased revenues for individual teams through extra games and TV, but knackered attendence when no one wants to see Manchester United play Maccabe Haifa in the second group stage at home in Old Trafford. (UEFA has since lost two group rounds to the competition then quarter final then semi final, recognising that too many games was killing interest in the sport and the players constitution).

Tom Goodman said...

Contraction would be a reasonable approach to one of baseball's biggest problems and George S. sent a lengthy email a week or so ago to several bloggers detailing what his approach to such a move would entail. I will ask him if he wants to post that email.

That said, I doubt contraction will come to pass for reasons RSB cites and because on a strictly public relations level the lords of MLB didn't move a team to Washington for example, watch the city fight over the location of a new stadium only to yank the franchise from the area shortly thereafter.

As for the Marlins, that little melodrama is still being played out but I would not be surprised to see the franchise moved. Moving franchises is the more likely means baseball's owners will pursue to allowing contraction. And, of course, the whole matter will never receive player support for obvious reasons.

The current World Series is the best example in my memory of the dilution of the Series itself due to all the reasons cited. Above all, I remain convinced interleague play and overexposure of baseball on television has undermined the Series. The mystery and fascination of seeing players from the "other" league and teams has vanished when you can watch them on Saturday afternoon, Sunday evening, Wednesday evening and at your local ballpark.

MLB loves to feed at the television trough and won't hear of the notion that less might be more. All baseball all the time is their motto. Indeed, if they don't fix the playoffs and length of the regular season they might finally succeed in playing baseball into November. With rain forecast for tonight in St. Louis, and if the current Series goes a full seven games, we might just see the players wearing batting mittens not gloves!!

RickSchuBlues said...

Personally, I had interest in three of the eight postseason teams: Minnesota, Oakland, and Detroit. In the case of the Twins and A's, there were two teams who bucked the system and played smart and played right, and I wish they had fared better in the scheme of things. And the Tigers, who are still playing, have been due for this kind of Cinderella year forever. It's easy to pretend you're watching this happen to the Phillies and Philadelphia.

Unfortunately, my ability to still favor one team over another isn't enough to get past the fact that the whole affair seems to lack drama. It seems that the postseason energy and intrigue peaks in the LCS, and the Series always seems like a superfluous afterthought.

George S said...

If it will help the discussion, feel free to use the post I sent to some of you separately. It might provide some food for thought.