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Ten Years Since the Strike: What Went Wrong?

Part One of Two Parts

As I sit here and begin to write this long diatribe, I continuously look at the clock. It is 12:50 now. Okay, still got an hour and forty minutes before the pregame show. Like many, maybe all of you, today is a sacred day in American sports that will be spent watching the Super Bowl, a competition between the best teams from the NFL's respective conferences. Some telling signs about just how important the Super Bowl is?

-During halftime, the toilets will flow. In fact, Niagara Falls could run for seven minutes with the amount of water that will be flushed down our nation's toilets during the half.

-Super Bowl Sunday is second only to Thanksgiving in terms of food consumed during the course of one day. Over the entire year, Super Bowl Sunday is #2. More than Christmas, more than the 4th of July, more than New Year's Eve.

-A 30 second commercial spot during this year's telecast on ABC will cost the advertiser a cool $2.5 million. And that is for just 30 seconds.

So why am I telling you all this? Well, to illustrate to you how far baseball has fallen behind in national popularity over the last 30 years. It used to be that baseball was America's undisputed #1 sport. Now, it is America's #2 sport, competing with second tier sports like basketball and NASCAR (if you can call that a sport), and usually losing to stock car racing. How did this come about? What went wrong? Why am I sitting here today getting ready for a four hour pregame show for a football event, and why have I never done any such thing for baseball?

What Went Wrong Reason #1: Inept Management

For a true perspective on why baseball has sunken in the American sports perspective, just take a look at the two longest tenured commissioners in each sport over the last 40 years. Football had the innovator, Pete Rozelle. Baseball had 'the village idiot', Bowie Kuhn. Football had 'the man with the iron fist', Paul Tagliabue. Baseball had 'Bud Light', Bud Selig. Enough for you, probably not, so let's continue.

Baseball has always played on a different economic playing field than any other professional sport. It had a distinct advantage. Exemption from the 1890 Sherman Anti-Trust Act. Essentially, baseball is a monopoly. No league has competed anywhere close to baseball's level since the Federal League in the 1910s. Hockey had the WHA, Basketball the ABA and CBA, Football, the WFL, USFL, and XFL. But baseball has had nothing competing against it.

The reason baseball was so popular, and the reason football is now is the same reason Wal-Mart is so profitable. It is able to treat its workers like cheap labor and cannon fodder. Sure, this isn't really the case, as football players still rake in millions every year, but Tagliabue and Rozelle have kept the union at bay and have made it, by far, the weakest in professional sports. Football gets away with a hard cap and unguaranteed contracts. A football team can sign a player to an eight year, $64 million contract, backload the salary, and then cut that player before the money starts flowing in. It is the same principle that you will see this offseason when Derrick Brooks goes elsewhere. His contract has been backloaded through payment deferments to the point where the Bucs just cannot afford him anymore. The same principle held true with Terrell Owens, who was an idiot, and completely ignored reality in structuring his seven year, $49 million contract.

In baseball, you cannot do that. To even shift around guaranteed money, you have to go through all sorts of hoops in the union, as the Yankees did in the Alex Rodriguez trade. Furthermore, and most glaringly, there is no cap, which is why you see teams like the Yankees blowing $200 million on player salaries every single year. How did this come about? How did baseball go from the days of Judge Kennesaw Mountain Landis, who ruled with an iron fist, to the days where Don Fehr is the most important man in baseball. I, for one, blame Marvin Miller and Curt Flood.

Okay, blame might not be the right word. Miller was just an extremely shrewd businessman who played his cards brilliantly, and opened up baseball to the evils of free agency and kept a salary cap out of the question. Flood's audacity in challenging the reserve clause opened the door for free agency, and changed the way baseball players were looked at. Warren Sapp may have gotten a lot of flak a few years back about calling the NFL "the slave master", but it more subtle terms, he is absolutely correct. The NFL players are now what baseball players were 40 years ago, indentured servants. It might sound extremely like a spoiled brat for a guy earning eight figures to say that, but he is absolutely right. You won't see any football players starving soon, but in the grander scheme of things, the owners come away much more ahead than the players in the NFL.

So the beginning of the end, in my opinion, for baseball's reign as the nation's #1 sport ended when Flood challenged the reserve clause, and in doing so, he exposed a leak, a crack in the facade, of baseball's management. And that little leak would soon turn into a major 'Flood' (ha ha ha).

But football would never have any such leaks exposed. Management stood firm in the 1982 and '87 player strikes, never letting the union get the upper hand, and although free agency came into existence in 1992-93, football would never let the salary cap go. Baseball though could never get any type of cap installed in any of their multiple work stoppages from the 1970s to the 1990s. They got a luxury tax, but as you see now in the New York stadium talks, that was a proposal big enough to drive a Mack truck through, as teams can write off billion dollar stadium plans on the tax. Baseball's weak revenue sharing gets even more dried up whereas the NFL splits up league profits evenly.

So if you look at the grand scheme of things, most of the reasons for the popularity difference can be traced to how the sport was run, but wait, there's more.....

What Went Wrong Reason #2: Lack of Innovation

Innovation and baseball don't really mix too well. The unique tradition that baseball holds is a double-edged sword. Although tradition is what makes baseball great, it also handcuffs the league's ability to engineer innovation to appeal to a larger demographic. Hell, World War I in baseball was just getting lights installed for night games, and don't even get the traditionalists started on realignment and interleague play. The good news is that baseball has taken steps forward in the last ten years. The introduction of the wild card and interleague play have increased baseball's popularity immensely. Some of the highest regular season attendance totals come during interleague play. The wild card and the extra division championship have given two teams that may not have made the playoffs under the old format new life, and in the process, have made new fans in their respective cities with people who otherwise would not have cared.

But for baseball, it has come too little, too late. Under Pete Rozelle, football has turned the concept of playing one football game on a weekday night into a national staple. It has turned football on Thanksgiving into something as connected with the day as turkey and pilgrims. Baseball just has not done that. And the good thing about football's innovation is that it did not come at the expense of tradition. It didn't load every day of the week with games, it preserved the sanctity of Sunday afternoons. Baseball needs to parlay their advantages into new ideas. Although certain international efforts like NFL Europe have not worked out for football, at least they have tried, something that baseball regrettably has not done.

A perfect example of that finally starting to happen is this year's inaugural World Baseball Classic. Baseball, like basketball, has a large international following, and the WBC takes full advantage of that following in its format. Sure, it needs to be tweaked here and there, but it is a good step in the right direction for baseball, which needs to fill the void of losing Olympic competition that will take place after the 2008 Beijing games. It needs to take advantage of its international popularity. Open up a minor league in South American countries like Brazil and Argentina, with huge populations not exposed to baseball. Start up a similar league in Europe. The opportunities are endless, the MLB brain trust just needs to stop sitting around with their respective thumbs up their you-know-what. Innovate, don't imitate.

What Went Wrong Reason #3: Exposure

For this reason, baseball is not entirely to blame, although it does stem from their mistakes in other aspects. Baseball just does not get enough exposure. Major League Baseball's television agreement with Fox, which expires after the 2006 season, needs to be re-evaluated hard before Selig signs on the dotted line for a new agreement. It isn't particularly Fox that is the problem, but baseball just isn't on enough. It has limited itself to two networks for national games, ESPN and Fox. Baseball has already signed an agreement with ESPN past this season, but it needs to go back and broaden itself for people, like football does.

Football is great because every home market game will be televised on network TV. Either Fox, CBS, or a local network affiliate picks up all games, like WFTS does for ESPN games around here. While this is impossible to do for a 162 game schedule like baseball has, baseball needs to do something like they had in the 70s and 80s, The Baseball Network. A collaboration of two national networks televising games. ABC has recently lost football, the BCS, and hockey, and the NBA airs mostly in baseball's offseason, why not approach them and partner up with Fox, which would be at a major loss without baseball. If it means that you sell the TV rights for less money, than so be it, because you cannot put a price on exposure, which baseball has learned the hard way.

The one good thing exposure-wise for baseball are the "superstations" originated out of a certain city and broadcasting local programming nationwide. TBS and WGN are two such stations, and both air baseball, TBS the Braves, and WGN the Cubs and White Sox. Without TBS, the Braves may not have survived in Atlanta in the 80s, and WGN has had a large hand in making the Cubs what they are today, and have made a Chicago team a national one. It truly does work. I have heard of numerous people who say they are Cub fans because of WGN, including my own brother, who became a Cub fan through their exposure on WGN when the Rays did not exist. Baseball has some good things going for it, it just needs to parlay those good things into bigger numbers of fans.

Coming Up Next Week

I've already told you the problems, now what does Major League Baseball need to do to come to a solution? Coming up next Sunday, I will present a detailed plan for fixing baseball's course and expanding its horizons. In the meantime, why don't you drop us a line here at Bay, and voice your opinion on this subject? What has baseball done wrong over the last 40 years? We have a poll set up for you to vote on. What has been the main cause of baseball's popularity drop? Take our poll by clicking the 'Entry Link' button at the bottom of thius post.

Photo Credits:
Super Bowl
Bud Selig-TSN
Marvin Miller-Baseball Reliquary
MNF logo-ABC Media
WBC logo-Baseball America
MLB on FOX logo-Entertainment World


What has been the main cause in baseball's drop in popularity?

This poll is closed

  • 0%
    Labor Strife
    (0 votes)
  • 20%
    Inept Management
    (2 votes)
  • 20%
    Lack of Innovation
    (2 votes)
  • 10%
    Lack of Exposure
    (1 vote)
  • 30%
    (3 votes)
  • 10%
    (1 vote)
  • 10%
    No real drop
    (1 vote)
  • 0%
    Other (please specify in a comment)
    (0 votes)
10 votes total Vote Now