"Baseball has been declining in interest for some time in terms of the young male audience," says Dr. Patrick Rishe, an economist who studies sports at Webster University. "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 much like the Republican Party, 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.

See a larger version of this week's cover.
Cover illustration by Tim Teebken

"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 Beltrán, 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 LA'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 die-hard 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 ten."

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.

"It causes us to basically be forced to provide a bloated, expanded level of basic cable service," says Polka. "Our customers know that these aren't channels watched on a regular basis, but they still have to pay for the monthly subscriber fee. Because of your market power, you are essentially forcing me to carry channels I don't want."

Baseball rides comfortably in the back seat of this strong-arm game. According to the research firm NPD Group, the average cable or satellite bill will reach $200 by 2020. Half of that fee will go to sports. And everyone pays, because most providers are barred by contract from moving sports to a premium package.

That's why FOX can double its payments to carry the World Series. Though only 10 percent of America will watch, the remaining 90 percent will cover the freight.

Yet consumers have clearly tired of picking up someone else's check. During a single quarter in 2012, Comcast lost 117,000 subscribers. While such figures are cyclical, cable and satellite have lost customers nine years running.

What's worse for baseball, the largest exodus involves the young, who increasingly turn to cheaper fare like Netflix and Hulu. They're not just turning away from the game; they don't even want access.

But neither television nor baseball seems to notice these darkening skies. Take the country's most obsessive TV market, Los Angeles, where a school of piranhas has attacked the city's cable bill.

Not long ago, LA hosted just two regional sports channels. Soon there will be seven. The Lakers charge $4 a month. FOX bills $5.40 for its two channels. The Dodgers are expected to add another $5. And Bevilacqua just negotiated a stunning 500 percent increase for the Pac-12's media rights.

"There are no new pro or college games being created," says DirecTV's Dan York. "But what used to be delivered via two regional sports networks now seeks to be re-sliced into [multiple channels and] more costs for consumers. That's not a sustainable model."

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7 comments
mekra
mekra

It's weird to reference new media and not take it into account.  MLB.TV delivered 127.2 million streams in the first two weeks of 2009.  It's hard to casually find statistics about the subscriptions last year, but that 127.2 million number was a 136 percent increase from the previous year.  Attendance has also risen steadily at MLB stadiums.  Check out the wiki for record-setting home attendance; most of the numbers are in the 2000s (decade, I mean).  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Major_League_Baseball_attendance_records

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

That's just plain wrong.  The MLB added a one-game wildcard last year in both divisions and updated several rules before the start of this season--notably a rule on balks, which was certainly imposed to speed up the game.  There's also talk of eliminating the intentional walk.  

That wildcard game drew only 4.6 million viewers--to TBS, which considered it a smash success.  You also make a lot of choice comparisons between a series of games to ratings for a single game championship like the Superbowl, which is especially hard to swallow given how the Giants crushed the Tigers last year.  Lots of people didn't continue watching the blowout, but that's true of any sports event.

You're also wrong about salaries determining championships or the Cubs would have won one by now.  Plus, the Yankees suck this year, and they're pouring money into their team.  The Dodgers are good, but they were beaten by a smaller payroll.  The A's made it to the postseason on a pretty light budget.  And about that "faster route of free agency"--ask the Marlins how that works out.


I just don't think that this editorial was well researched or reported.  

egolterman
egolterman topcommenter

Taxpayers here are picking up 'more' tabs than others paying off Ballpark bonds from hotel- motel tax for 30 years-commitments made by government officials based on inclusion of Ballpark Village. o taxpayers get a cut of all the new parties, banquets and special events revenue the Cardinals are loading into the Ballpark? Will they get a cut out of the beer sales from Phase One-Village?  May be baseball is heading toward a cliff but Cardinals owners cleared $20 million last year. That does not include the increase in value of their stock. And, they keep the ticket-tax revenue? 6 million a year.  Are you kidding me? Mayor Slay-take the sheriff over there, get that money and hire another 100 police officers. Ticket tax revenue is not to be kept by entertainment venues, producers or franchise owners. Make the rounds of all  and get it.

auxarcs
auxarcs

The MLB players union is the strongest and most unified union in sports. They would not sit still for salary reductions. No facts can change their belief in "habeas wampum" which means, "you have money, now give it to me!" Like the auto workers union that insisted, "it's not our fault the company gave us a contract they can't afford", they would rather destroy their business than compromise. I don't see how the ticket prices can go any higher, so MLB will need to go into bankruptcy,  or get the government to bail them out. If the players' union has contributed enough money to politicians, the governent will bail out MLB. The government auto company bailout helped the union by preventing GM and Chrysler from going into bankruptcy court to reorganize their businesses and renegotiate unsustainable labor contracts.

auxarcs
auxarcs

It's true that baseball doesn't draw as big a TV audience than football, but more people play various forms of baseball, softball, wiffle ball, t ball, kick ball, than any other sport. In that sense, baseball is still America's pastime. 

kevinalbright8
kevinalbright8

The author seems to think that merely the price of tickets and beer would skyrocket if TV money decreasaed dramatically. I don't see some sort of epic collapse of baseball, because player salaries would be slashed.  There would definitely be a big struggle, but baseball is not on the verge of falling off a cliff.

egolterman
egolterman topcommenter

@kevinalbright8 Yes and there is no way the City should have given up the ticket tax revenue to them, or the Fox, or now to the Blues. That's pure theft. And with Village a decade late and nothing like what gov officials were 'sold', the County should stop payment on  the Ballpark bonds, and refer the bondholders to the boys in Cincinatti for the payments.

 
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