Commentary > SportsBiz
Baseball wins in spite of itself
Despite attendance decline, gains by football and Nascar, it's wrong to call baseball down and out.
September 27, 2002: 4:44 PM EDT
A weekly column by Chris Isidore, CNN/Money Staff Writer

NEW YORK (CNN/Money) - Baseball has got to be the most widely successful troubled industry ever.

That's what happens when most of an industry's wounds are self-inflicted.

To hear the major league baseball executives and sports commentators talk, you would think the game was in danger of becoming less important to fans than arena football.

You hear about attendance being down 5 percent this year, and TV ratings badly trailing both football and Nascar. The World Champion Arizona Diamondbacks are projected to lose $50 million this year, despite improved attendance, and other teams were reported to be struggling to handle their debt load or cover their payroll earlier in the season.

Fans are still angry at owners and players for nearly having the ninth work stoppage in the game's history and for talk of eliminating two franchises.

Baseball fans, from former Commissioner Fay Vincent to this young fan, seem willing to forgive baseball its various shortcomings.  
Baseball fans, from former Commissioner Fay Vincent to this young fan, seem willing to forgive baseball its various shortcomings.

But as a difficult season comes to an end, it is important to put the game's financial condition in context.

The attendance decline is basically isolated to a handful of teams, most of them exceptionally poorly run.

The Detroit Tigers, Pittsburgh Pirates and Milwaukee Brewers are bad teams that no longer are attracting fans simply because they play in stadiums that opened in 2000 or 2001. The Florida Marlins got a "new" owner, Jeff Loria, who seems committed to driving away fans as fast as he did with his last team, the Montreal Expos, through poor player personnel decisions.

The Baltimore Orioles and Cleveland Indians aren't necessarily badly run, but they were bound to fall from previous lofty attendance heights. The Orioles lost fan favorite and drawing card Cal Ripken, who retired following 2001. The Indians went through a necessary rebuilding year after eight straight competitive seasons. Both teams are still among the top 11 teams in average attendance.

The Twins, and baseball itself, have had a lot to celebrate since plans to disband the team were first announced a year ago.  
The Minnesota Twins, and baseball itself, have had a lot to celebrate since plans to disband the team were first announced a year ago.

Exclude those six teams, and attendance for the rest of the league, including most of the last-place teams, was off only a few hundred fans a night. That's not bad in an economic downturn, when most of the season was played under the cloud of a possible season-ending strike.

Baseball's post-season broadcasts last year outdrew most other sporting events outside of the National Football League and the Olympics. It topped the National Basketball Association playoffs, as well as college basketball tournament and college football bowls.

Ratings for Fox's national baseball broadcasts this past regular season are standing at 2.6, the same as in 2001, and just barely behind the NBA ratings on NBC, which has far more prime-time games. Baseball's prime time national cable ratings rose to 1.6 from 1.2 in 2001, beating the NBA's national cable broadcasts, which is significant as basketball prepares to move most of its nationally-broadcast games to cable this season.

Local baseball broadcasts are also doing well -- Fox Sports Net, which broadcasts local games for 25 of the 30 teams, says that its overall ratings are up 4 percent this season.

If there's any doubt that fans can come back to the game after abuse, look at Montreal and Minnesota, two cities where the fans were told their teams would be closed down before this season began.

Montreal posted the biggest percentage increase in attendance, a 26 percent climb off an admittedly low base, even though the future of the team remains in doubt.

Minnesota followed 2001's 78 percent gain in attendance with another 8 percent gain. With the cloud of contraction lifted from Minnesota through at least 2006, expect the team to post another solid attendance gain next year.

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If Twins and Expos fans as a group have shown resilience, no one fan of the game may have shown more loyalty than Fay Vincent, the former commissioner of baseball who was forced out of his dream job in 1992.

He recently wrote a book, "The Last Commissioner" detailing his view of the game, but rather than concentrating on the problems with the games or the mistakes by the owners who forced him out, he concentrated on telling stories about players he admired and his memories of his father's love of the game. The subtitle of the book is "A Baseball Valentine."

"The game is so addictive, I think it overcomes these roadblocks and problems, thank God," he told me this week when I asked for his assessment of the state of the game in the wake of this year's problems. "Some fans remain angry, but I think most people move on. As it is, I don't think much damage was done."

Vincent believes baseball's financial numbers detailing losses are more accurate than most outside observers believe them to be, and believes that banks will start tightening credit in the coming years.

He believes a solution for some teams could be common ownership by major media companies, such as AOL Time Warner, the owner of the Atlanta Braves as well as CNN/Money, on whose board of directors he serves. He insists safeguards could be put in place to keep teams with the same owners operated independently, and doubts the owner would raid one franchise to help another.

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He also would like to see players and fans be given a chance at partial ownership of teams, giving them a true voice in selecting the commissioner -- an admittedly unlikely event.

But even if that never happens, its too early to write baseball's obit, though many have tried. The late Bill Veeck, one of the great owners in the history of the game, once said something along the lines that baseball must be a great sport to survive what owners continue to do to it.

What's amazing is that it hasn't only survived, it's thrived.  Top of page

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