Thursday, August 03, 2006

Baseball Trainwreck

-As we painfully watch the Cardinals struggle to find themselves, it brings to mind something that I've written about before, but bears repeating. Major League Baseball needs to be fixed. The economics of it are totally screwed-up and provide entertainment (at least in the form of competitiveness) to a few of North America's largest markets. For the medium and smaller market teams it's a game of catching lightning in a bottle. (e.g.-We might get lucky with a few players and win for a few years.) Until baseball's hierarchy understands that their sport will eventually be ruined by the large market teams outspending, and outperforming everybody else, and does something about it, they will be like Leonardo DiCaprio cruising along on an ill-fated Titanic.

Make no mistake, St. Louis has, because of its overwhelming loyalty to, and love for, the Cardinals been a major exception to the rule. The Cardinals have legions of loyal fans eager to spend money on anything red, and flock to the games. That's just how we are. But, we don't get the big picture. We're blinded by our success, albeit limited. But we need to see that we're also victims of the out-of-whack power structure. Walt Jockety and his ownership struggle to keep a competitive product on the field, while the big-market GMs just throw more money at their problems. Some wonder if the Cardinals owners just use being in a small market as an excuse. Either way, the structure needs to be fixed...for those that want to be competitive...or those who find being in small markets a convenient excuse to NOT be.

People in markets like Kansas City, Minneapolis, Pittsburgh, Tampa, Miami, Houston, Seattle, and several others understand that supporting the local baseball organization is, at best, like going to a movie, at worst, futile... at least when it comes to winning anything. Even the Cardinals have been able to remain competitive to the point where we expect a winning product...but not anymore when it comes to the post-season. That's when the cream rises to the top. And, unfortunately, the cream is already skimmed off by the New Yorks, Chicagos and Bostons of the baseball world.

Can the baseball lords not see that the NFL is the most successful league in pro sports? Don't they understand why? They have their economic house in order, and allow ALL of their teams in ALL of their markets to chase the Lombardi trophy. Therefore ALL of the fans of the sport can remain interested, excited and passionate. They have a salary cap as part of a workable labor agreement. They have tons of television money to spread around. They all have a fighting chance because all teams are required to work within the same financial framework. Yes, it's like sports socialism. But it's a systemic solution...and it's working beautifully. Aren't the baseball owners just the least bit jealous?

As hard as it may be to believe, even the NHL now has a labor agreement that puts them in a more competitive position than baseball. They have a chance to move up the sports totem-pole to a position of more prominence because of the enormous public relations disaster they put themselves through two years ago. They shut down the league in order to get a salary cap and economic system that works for ALL markets. At least NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman saw the problem, and was able to convince his owners that the league would die unless they fixed it. They did. And they had a record year in attendance (the Blues not withstanding) in their first year back on the ice.

Because baseball was granted an anti-trust exemption back in the early part of the 20th century, they have always operated on a different playing field than other sports. I guess that makes some in the sport feel like they have a special place in our society. But baseball also needs to understand that American kids aren't playing the sport like they once did. The average guy is fed up to the follicles with the steroids mess. And, that same guy is watching the game on TV because he likely can't afford a ticket. That average guy is paying the television freight in the big markets... and unwittingly financing part of the problem. How long do they think the smaller market, and therefore uncompetitive teams, will be able to charge the kind of prices they do and keep people coming to the games? It appears like they don't care as long as the "big boys" have some other teams to play against.

But that's where it might start to unravel. When the economics of the smaller market teams start to cave in, as they did in Montreal, the large-market money-men will finally realize they have to do something. Do you think Commissioner Bud (I used to be a car salesman) Selig understands the scope of the problem? Doubtful. I'm sure the owners in the large markets have a hard time seeing the problem...or wanting to see it. When some of the small market owners start to threaten to shut down their teams...maybe someone will understand, and take action. Until then, we can root for David to make the playoffs, and watch the Goliaths in the World Series.

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