Monday, July 9, 2007

Costs are down, revenues are up, and our stock has never been higher

Here's an interesting state-of-the game piece over at MarketWatch. It doesn't actually contain a photo of Bud Selig eating black rhino steaks and lighting cigars with $100 bills, but it could. Biz of baseball guru Maury Brown is quoted in the article thusly: "Revenues are at an all-time high, as are attendance figures. When coupled with two consecutive labor agreements being reached without a work stoppage, MLB is at its rosiest point ever." Yes, it seems that baseball is on a roll these days, financially, competitively, and from a marketing perspective.

Yet, if you only read the article's opening paragraph, you'd never know it:

Steroids, labor disputes, the dilution of talent, a deep divide between the haves and the have-nots: Major League Baseball, despite all its missteps, has proven to be the nuclear cockroach of pro sports -- it just won't die.

It's not my intent to pick on this article. It gets the facts right, and it's my suspicion that the negative lede was imposed by an editor who wanted to enhance the news-breaking flavor of this story by opening with what he believed to be popular public sentiment that the game is, in fact, doomed. He probably was right to do so, really. Look at that paragraph again and ask yourself: how many stories have you read in recent months and years pounding on those themes? A dozen? A hundred?

A quick and dirty Lexis search reveals around a thousand articles written in the past two years in which the term "revenue" appears in the same sentence as "Major League Baseball." Substituting "steroids" for "revenue" breaks the search engine, bringing back more than three thousand hits. That's obviously not a scientific sampling, but there are certainly more things being written about what is going wrong with baseball than what is going right.

Contrary to the opinion of those who still support our tragic frolic in Iraq, it's not the job of the media to only report good news. Indeed, it is incumbent upon the media to report the bad news because we simply cannot expect those with vested interests -- be it the Bush Administration or the Selig Administration -- to give us the dirt. It is also the job of the media, however, to place the news, be it good or bad, in the proper perspective and context. When it comes to baseball, this almost never seems to occur.

A brief look at the metrics cited in the intro to the MarketWatch article reveals just how far the conventional wisdom, as generally reported in the mainstream press, is removed from reality:


Conventional Wisdom: The game as we once knew it has been marred by steroids, its players mutated beyond recognitions, its records distorted, and its integrity destroyed.

Reality: While an obvious problem, it's one that baseball's tough testing regimen has effectively addressed on a going-forward basis even if the lords of the game are utterly clueless about what to do and how to begin to talk about past steroid use and it's effect on the game and it's records.

The stories you're not hearing: Take your pick, really. For starters, how about the fact that early testing indicates that steroids are used more often by pitchers and far more often by marginal players than the highly-paid sluggers who have come under such scrutiny. And while we're at it, how come so much has been written about Barry Bonds' hat size, and so little has been written about the fact that offensive linemen are now over 50 pounds heavier and half a foot taller than they used to be only twenty years ago? Baseball may have a steroid problem, but football has a crisis, and it would have even if retired players weren't routinely dropping dead at younger and younger ages.

Labor disputes

Conventional Wisdom: The union is evil, the owners are worse, and the next time a player rep so much as farts off-key, the public is going to abandon these spoiled millionaires and start watching wholesome, all-American bush league ball.

Reality: As Maury Brown notes, there hasn't been a work stoppage in baseball in thirteen years, and the runup to the signing of the last collective bargaining agreement was about as contentious as the General Conference of Friends. Everyone's rich, everyone's happy, and everyone's playing baseball instead of singing Pete Seeger songs.

The stories you're not hearing: That ownership is slowly gaining some power relative to the players' union, which is likely to make each side a little more reasonable in future disputes (i.e. the owners won't necessarily think they have to "bust" the union and the players won't necessarily take intractable positions). That, despite the horror of 1994-95, the union and ownership have managed over the years to create healthier labor conditions than the other major sports. Don't believe me? Ask football hall-of-famer Earl Campbell, who has to rely on a token job from the University of Texas just so that he can get health insurance. Ask any hockey fan, who has to search for their sports' playoffs on obscure cable networks as a result of what will one day be seen as the most damaging labor dispute in sports history.

Dilution of talent

Conventional Wisdom: Overexpansion has led to too many palooka pitchers serving up gopher balls and relinquishing late leads, which has diminished the quality of the game.

Reality: This one is not totally ridiculous, as it does seem to me that there have been more useless arms trotted out of bullpens in recent years, but I question whether this an issue of talent dilution as opposed to a pandemic of irresponsible bullpen use. While there may be a couple more teams now than there used to be, every team now has two or three more pitchers on its active roster than in the past, and as a result, the cannon fodder is being used in the sorts of key situations that were once reserved for stronger relievers. Bullpen use aside, in light of our rapidly growing population and the exploitation of foreign talent, it's not entirely clear that expansion has outpaced the growth in the available talent pool.

The stories you're not hearing: The dearth of talented quarterbacks in football and point guards in basketball, both of which have a much greater impact on the quality of play in those sports than any talent dilution does in baseball.

Divide between the haves and the have-nots

Conventional Wisdom: The economics of baseball are broken. There are two kinds of teams -- rich ones and poor ones -- and only the former has any chance of winning anything.

Reality: How this trope remains in effect despite all evidence to the contrary is beyond me. Yes, there are high revenue teams and there are low revenue teams. Yes, this impacts a team's ability to go after or retain high priced free-agent talent. No, this does not impact any team's ability to compete, and when we're talking professional sports, that's really the only thing that matters.

After a brief Clinton-era run of dominance by the Yankees, there have been seven different World Series' winners in seven years, with only two of them -- the Yankees in 2000 and the Red Sox in 2004 -- being teams that are traditionally thought of as the "haves" of the world. Anaheim and Chicago are now thought of that way, but this perception has grown as a result of their world championships, not the basis for them.

The stories you're not hearing: That at the all star break, thirteen teams are either in first place or within five games of it, and that has pretty much been the case for the past several years. In recent years, teams like Minnesota, Oakland, Florida, Milwaukee, St. Louis, Detroit, and Cleveland have shown that you can have a beer budget and still taste postseason champagne. While the high dollar free agent signings are nice and may temporarily keep a team from bottoming out, they rarely if ever can single-handedly turn a loser into a winner. Even casual fans no longer need Michael Lewis to tell them that the key to building a contender is building wisely rather than richly.

Of course some people are getting it right, or else the MarketWatch article never would have been written, and certainly none of this stuff is news to the denizens of Baseball Think Factory, Baseball Prospectus, or the Hardball Times. Conversations with coworkers and barfiles, however, reveal that the casual fans aren't hearing this stuff. Why?

I don't have any solid answers. One possibility is that the general baseball commentariat is so cynical and jaded and so caught up in the nostalgia for the imaginary perfect baseball of their youth that they can't help but focus on the negative to the point of distortion and inaccuracy. This is fun to talk about -- slamming the T.J. Simmers and Jay Mariottis of the world never gets old -- but even though paranoids have their enemies, I am inherently skeptical of any theory that depends on moustache-twirling villains to maintain. It's a factor, but only gets you so far.

I'm more enamoured with another theory. It's a theory which holds that, despite all that has been written about baseball's fall from primacy in the culture, and despite all that has been said about football or soccer or reality TV supplanting it as our national pastime, baseball still matters to this country more than any other sport. To the extent that it has disappointed us, it has done so in the way an honor student disappoints his parents for bringing home an A minus, while his nogoodnik younger brother -- in this case pro football -- is lauded for the simple act of avoiding actual jail time. We expect more out of baseball because it has shown us the potential for so much more.

Putting it in those terms makes me feel a lot better about the slings and arrows that frequently come the way of my favorite pastime, even if I'm going to do all I can to note that those slings and arrows are, for the most part, unwarranted.

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