Longform

Major League Baseball's Screwball Economics

Page 3 of 4

Across the country in Minneapolis, the Twins' deal will be enough to cover the salary of their best player, catcher Joe Mauer — with perhaps a weak-hitting infielder to spare.

Though baseball has long played with a rigged financial deck, it's about to get perilously worse.

The game, of course, does its best to subdue such talk. The surest way to keep front-office types from the phone is to request an interview to discuss how the latest local TV deals will affect competitive balance. The Padres, Dodgers, Cardinals, Twins, Brewers, Indians and Pirates all declined comment for this story.

Selig's office isn't any more effusive. "We are going to take a pass on this one," says spokesman Matt Bourne.

Still, it's safe to say that these fixed odds have deposed generations of fans in smaller cities across the land. In any given year, half the teams are in the midst of three-to-five-year rebuilding projects, since they're financially barred from the faster route of free agency. At the same time, the league has done little to make all that losing bearable.

While the NBA and NFL constantly remake rules for speed and action, baseball's last significant change was the designated hitter. In 1973.

The result has produced a spectacle once described by the Boston Globe's Ray Fitzgerald as "six minutes of action crammed into two-and-one-half hours." Forgive young men for preferring Call of Duty or football by the time the Fall Classic rolls around.

"Baseball has been declining in interest for some time in terms of the young male audience," says Patrick Rishe, an economist who studies sports at Webster University in St. Louis. "I think baseball is seen as archaic. The sport moves at a slower pace. Their athleticism doesn't jump off the screen. I think they have to find a way to speed it up."

But the game is hamstrung by its sizable purist wing, those who believe the slightest change invites heresy. Meanwhile, the economic disparities continue to mount.

No one knows this better than the people of Kansas City. During the '70s and '80s, the Royals were a power on par with the Red Sox, despite playing in the country's 31st-largest market.

"Stands were filled," says Joe Posnanski, the town's former dean of sports writers at the Kansas City Star. "Everyone talked about the Royals. It was really one of the best baseball cities in America at that time."

Yet Kansas City stopped playing for titles in 1985, just as the league's crevice between rich and poor was becoming too wide to jump. The Royals sunk to little more than schedule-filler, a talent farm for the rest of baseball.

Players like Carlos Beltran, Johnny Damon and Zack Greinke "were traded before their contracts expired because the Royals said they could no longer afford them," according to Posnanski. "It started to feel like a vicious circle, and it depressed many Kansas City Royals fans."

He has no doubt that "if the Royals start to win, and win big, the young fans will get excited about them."

But that winning part is a big if. Local TV will bring Kansas City just $20 million this year. Even with an estimated $25 million in revenue-sharing, they're still at a four-to-one disadvantage against the Dodgers. Toss in a potential fan base that's but a speck of L.A.'s, and the Royals become a mom-and-pop clothier parked next to Walmart.

They might win a sale or two, even have a good year. But few succeed in business or baseball when the odds are this stacked.


Television's Strong-Arm Racket

The collapse of baseball's TV revenue won't come from diehard fans. There's no indication that the sport's truest disciples won't pay more and more until there's nothing left.

The problem is non-fans, who are picking up most of the check.

Here's how it works: Just six companies control 90 percent of America's TV programming. And they won't let your local provider simply carry the channels you actually want to watch to keep your bill modest.

When Disney negotiates contracts, anyone who wants ESPN is usually forced to buy a bundle that includes lesser fare like ESPN Classic or ABC Family, whether they want them or not.

The same goes for programmers like Viacom. If you want Nickelodeon or MTV, you're also required to buy Logo and VH1 Classic, among the lowest-rated channels in television.

"It's incredible," says Matthew Polka of the American Cable Association. "If you want one popular channel, they make you take 10."

Most contracts require that all channels be included as part of a cable company's "basic" package. That's why your TV menu is loaded with shows about tow-truck drivers and women who make bras.

KEEP THE DALLAS OBSERVER FREE... Since we started the Dallas Observer, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Dallas, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Pete Kotz
Contact: Pete Kotz