I Guess I Picked the Wrong Day to Give Up Sniffing Glue
ESPN reports that attendance is down 4.8% from the same point last season. And 2002 itself had a 6% decline.
It seems that baseball picked the wrong time to berate itself. The labor negotiations and their attendant (get it?) public disputes were extended an extra year due to the September 11th attacks at the end of the 2001 season. Baseball felt that it was best to delay their minor squabbles (how big of them!). They hadn't planned on the economy collapsing and staying collapsed, the war, SARs, and whatever problem bedevils us this week (Monica Lewinsky hosting a reality show, maybe?).
The owners talked down the sport so much that the fans are still doing it. It was too successful. And the pitbulls that they got rolling, can't seem to stop. I heard Pardon the Interruption's Tony Kornheiser say today that all outfielders should be removed and that they should go to three-ball walks and two-strike Ks after the 12th inning of an extra-inning ballgame because the game is too slow. Aside from the ridiculousness of this assertion (how many 12-inning games are they and are they really the culprits in games taking too long?), it presents an underlying animosity towards the sport.
Baseball has ridden two decades of revenue growth due to a baseball nostalgia that swept the country. They chose to kill that golden goose by pointing out every blemish in the sport just as that nostalgia was wearing thin. Now, sports fans are content to watch Tiger Woods play a "sport" that is the equivalent, in my book, of watching paint dry and they still see a nuanced and exciting game. Auto racing which feels the same to me as a commute home after a day of work (maybe that's why it's so popular: the people who watch it don't get to experience a rush hour when they drive to their job at Stuckey's) is trendy and youthful.
Baseball may have killed that golden goose or at least severely maimed it. I have said this an umpteen plus one times, but what this sport needs to do is sell its superstars. Barry Bonds is sullen. A-Rod, overpaid. Vlad Guerrero, unknown. Greg Maddux, too bookish, Clemens, a bat-wielding hot head. Baseball needs to sell these stars to the public before a whole generation of fans is lost to the poly-knits of golf.
They own all the media anyway. They should now use them to their advantage.
Of course, another factor in all this is the number of new stadiums built in the last 12 or so years. Baseball is now experiencing the effects of those stadiums losing their honeymoon appeal for the fans. Cleveland, as the article points out, was once a franchise to emulate, locking up their young stars to long-term contracts and selling out their stadium, but has had a 30% decline in the last year. (They also gutted their franchise at the same time.)
With Bud Selig announcing that he shall not seek, and will not accept, another term as your baseball commissioner, the sport is at a crossroads at a time when Bud will be starting to gut the offices for cheap supplies with which to outfit his Brewers. Baseball seems unconcerned. Their biggest announcement is that games are now available for a fee on the Web. Given that fans do not wish to pay to actually attend a game, paying to view it on a crappy monitor may have a limited market. Besides MLB.TV may be another means to choke the casual fan's interest in baseball and further distance its fans if it means that games will be unavailable on regular TV (i.e., basic cable).
So what is to be done? Selig should address the issue quickly and decisively. Run some promos featuring baseball stars. Guarantee (or thereabouts) that the All-Star game will not end in a tie. Admit that interleague play is not attracting as many fans as it repels and move on.
That he is doing none of those things speaks for itself. Baseball, meaning the owners, are concerned with reducing payroll and are still kvelling after an offseason of decimating player salaries and creatively pricing ticket packages. Until lower attendance hits their bottomline they will not be concerned about it. And then it may be too late. By that time, a new commissioner and a new CBA may be sought and then the cycle of negatively spinning may start anew. Before the players and owners came to an agreement late last season, some were saying that the sport may not survive another strike or if it did it would be as an NFL Europe-attended event. The two parties signed their CBA and peace is assured for some time, but the fans are reacting like the players are still on strike, staying away in droves. It all makes the players' capitulation to the owners in signing the agreement look like that much more of bad decision in the first place.