News Briefs: Fall 1997

Attendance. Up 5.2% this season, from 26,889 to 28,288 per game; it remains 10.5% below 1994's pre-strike peak. Interleague games, helped by the novelty factor and favorable summer scheduling, drew 20.4% more fans than intraleague games.

Popularity. A Harris Poll released November 3 showed that 17% of Americans considered baseball their favorite sport, compared to 28% for pro football, 13% for pro basketball and 10% for college football. When this survey was first conducted in 1985, 23% named baseball their favorite sport. 50% of respondents said they followed baseball, down from 54% in 1985.

A September New York Times poll found 15% of adults "very interested" in baseball, 27% "somewhat interested" and 58% "not interested." The 42% expressing interest were then asked additional questions (margin of error +/- 5%):

Designated hitter: Favored, 50-32.

Geographic realignment: Favored, 44-40. (A September Associated Press poll of 686 self-described fans found a 54-27 majority in favor of realignment, but polls of a narrower but more devoted audience revealed quite different sentiments. A survey of 1,700 Chicago Cub seaon ticket holders found 77% opposed to radical realignment, 79% in favor of keeping the Cubs and White Sox in different leagues, and 77% strongly opposed to the Cubs' adoption of the DH, while the San Francisco Giants reported that 95% of their season ticket holders opposed radical realignment.

Interleague play: Favored, 75-17. Of the 75% in favor, 12% wanted more interleague games, 5% fewer, 56% the same number. (A September AP poll found 35% favoring more interleague games, 9% fewer, and 47% the same number.)

Permanent Commissioner: Favored, 45-42, over the status quo. Of the 45%, 16% favored Selig, 22% someone else, 7% no opinion.

Ratings. Despite a relatively unattractive matchup and games which dragged on forever, the 1997 World Series finished with a 16.9 rating (down 3% from 1996) and a 29 share of the television audience. With World Series games as five of the week's six most-watched programs, NBC won the weekly ratings battle by its widest margin since the 1996 Olympics -- but by the time the final ratings were in, writers and broadcasters had spent two weeks howling that "baseball is dying" and weren't about to back down.

Salaries. Average salary: $1,312,997, up 19% in 1997 after an 0.6% rise in 1996. Median salary: $400,000, up $100,000 from 1996. Total player payroll: $1,119,537,215. At the end of the 1997 season, owners had already committed $720.2 million to 208 players in 1998, $443.7 million to 96 players in 1999, and $270 million to 45 players in 2000. [Ironically, the salary explosion was sparked by owners who had taken the hardest line in labor negotiations: Wayne Huizenga, Jerry Reinsdorf and the Tribune Company, whose inexplicable decision to pay Sammy Sosa $10 million/year will be cited by arbitration-eligible players for years to come.]

MLB News

ESPN Radio replaces CBS. MLB signed a new five-year radio contract under which ESPN Radio will broadcast a weekly Sunday night game of the week, all postseason games and the All-Star Game, plus at least two games on holidays and Opening Day and three additional games each week during the September pennant races. Terms of the deal were not disclosed.

Marketing head axed. Greg Murphy, beleaguered president and CEO of Major League Baseball Enterprises, was fired in October, 16 months after taking office and six months after Bud Selig had indicated he was on the way out. No replacement has been named.

NL adopts unbalanced schedule. While the AL will retain a balanced schedule for 1998, with each club playing all rivals 11 or 12 games per season, clubs in the 16-team NL will play approximately 12 games against each divisional rival and nine against clubs in the other divisions. The nine games will be divided into three three-game series, with each club making only one trip per season to half of its non-divisional opponents.

Public ownership? On September 18, MLB voted to allow clubs to sell a minority of their shares to the public. At present the Florida Panthers and Boston Celtics are the only major sports franchises with publicly traded shares (the publicly-owned Green Bay Packers issue restricted shares) -- but a squib in the September 9, 1920 Sporting News, reports that at that time, shares of both the Cincinnati Reds and St. Louis Cardinals were traded on their local stock exchanges.

Realignment fizzles. After considering proposals which would have destroyed the American League and National League as they have existed for almost a century, the owners opted for a simpler solution to yet another problem of their own creation. One morning this summer, the owners woke up to realize that the 15-team leagues they had already approved would necessitate interleague play every day of the season, eliminating any "special" aura they hoped to create around interleague games. The simple solution was to move the expansion Arizona Diamondbacks to the American League, but MLB had foolishly guaranteed the Diamondbacks their preferred slot in the NL.

The radical plan encountered strong opposition from the New York and Chicago teams, which demanded to remain in separate leagues, and from others as well: the Braves, Reds, Mets and Pirates all threatened to veto plans to shift them into the American League. Some concerns were satisfied by a revised plan which would have shifted Anaheim, Oakland, Seattle, Kansas City and Milwaukee to the NL, Florida, Houston, Montreal and Philadelphia to the AL, but other objections could not be finessed. Giants' owner Peter Magowan threatened to sue if placed in the same league as the Athletics, and MLBPA head Donald Fehr objected to the AL's withdrawal from the West Coast, warning that the Association would veto interleague play after 1998 if such a move was made.

On October 15 -- during the World Series, and months after preliminary 1998 schedules were supposed to be distributed -- the owners finally voted 27-0 (San Francisco abstaining, Tampa Bay and Arizona not eligible to vote) for a proposal which shifted Detroit from the AL East to the AL Central and allowed Kansas City, Milwaukee or Minnesota, in that order, to choose whether to switch leagues to the NL Central. Despite early support for an intra-state rivalry with the Cardinals, the Royals opted not to move -- enabling Acting Commissioner for Life Bud Selig, whose involvement with baseball dates to his efforts to keep the Braves from moving to Atlanta, to complete the circle by bringing the Brewers into the National League.

The Teams

The Wall Street Journal reported in September that Disney lost $12 million on the Anaheim Angels in 1996 and forecast a $15 million loss in 1997. To cushion the blow, the club signed a 20-year, $50 million sponsorship deal with a local utility: the park will be renamed Edison International Field of Anaheim, with the power company also receiving prime advertising space inside the park and the use of a $165,000/year suite.

In Cincinnati, where the Reds and local government officials have disagreed over the best location for a new stadium, team officials have suggested that they would prefer renovating Cinergy Field to moving to the city's proposed location, away from the riverfront. But when suspended owner Marge Schott talked to the press about the situation, MLB fined her an undisclosed five-figure sum for granting an interview without permission.

Detroit broke ground for a new 40,000-seat downtown stadium. The stadium's estimated $260 million cost is being shared among Tigers owner Mike Ilitch ($145 million, including responsibility for cost overruns), Detroit's Downtown Development Authority ($60 million) and the Michigan Strategic Fund ($55 million, which must be returned if the stadium is not completed by August 2000). The park will have 80 luxury boxes, renting for $75,000-$250,000/year.

In Florida, the World Series title takes a back seat to owner Wayne Huizenga's magic wallet. After claiming in June that the Marlins would lose $30 million in 1997 without providing any supporting data, Huizenga adhered this estimate even after the playoffs and World Series alone attracted over 400,000 fans, paying premium prices, to Pro Player Stadium. Huizenga, who owns Pro Player Stadium, says that the five-year-old Marlins need a taxpayer-funded, retractable-roofed park "where luxury suite and all other revenue go directly to the team." Recognizing that south Floridians aren't likely to subsidize a business owned by one of the world's richest men, Huizenga proposes to sell the Marlins to a group headed by club president Don Smiley -- an insider who, despite Huizenga's claimed losses, appears willing to pay $150 million for the franchise.

Houston broke ground on October 30 for its new park, to be called the Ballpark at Union Station. The BUS, scheduled for completion by the start of the 2000 season, will be a $250 million, 42,000-seat baseball-only stadium with a retractable dome and natural-grass field. The Astros' 30-year lease calls for the team to pay $4.6 million/year in rent, as well as $2.5 million/year into a fund for capital expenses.

The Kansas City Royals have been offered for sale by the trust which has owned them since Ewing Kauffman's death. Surprising many, board chairman David Glass said he wouldn't bid. Interested parties include Chiefs owner Lamar Hunt and a group headed by local legend George Brett and his brothers.

Rupert Murdoch reached agreement to buy Los Angeles for a reported $350 million. The deal still awaits approval from the other owners, but even long-time Murdoch nemesis Ted Turner is remaining quiet. Perhaps Turner believes the Dodgers' claim to have lost $35 million since 1994, including over $12 million in 1997 -- even though the team has a moderate payroll, owns its own stadium, and dominates the country's second-largest market.

Unable to reach agreement with state and local government on a new stadium, Carl Pohlad has signed a letter of intent to sell the Minnesota Twins to North Carolina businessman Don Beaver, setting a November 30 deadline for Minnesota officials to approve a new stadium proposal. The Twins' lease at the Metrodome allows them to leave after the 1998 season. Pohlad hoped to break a legislative logjam by offering to contribute $111 million toward the cost of a new park, and has considered donating the team to the state if it agreed to assume $85 million in outstanding debt, but the legislature could not agree on a plan to fund the state's share. Minneapolis voters reacted to Pohlad's pressure by voting, 70-30, to require a public referendum before the city can spend more than $10 million on any sports project. At press time, the Minnesota legislature remains adamantly opposed to funding a stadium -- but North Carolinians haven't approved a stadium for prospective purchaser Beaver, either. Under Beaver's best-case scenario, the Twins would remain in Minnesota for a lame-duck 1998 season, then move to Charlotte's minor-league park for two years while their own park is built.

The New York Mets are close to announcing their plans for a new $300 million stadium to be constructed in the parking lot adjacent to Shea Stadium. The park, billed as a "new Ebbets Field," would seat a cozy 40,000, with a retractable roof Charley Ebbets and the Brooklyn Sym-Phony could only dream of.

Voters in an 11-county area around Pittsburgh rejected a proposed seven-year, half-cent sales tax increase to fund new stadia for the Pirates and Steelers, as well as other projects. The measure lost by a 58-42 in Pittsburgh's Allegheny County, and by wider margins in outlying areas. The lease signed by Pirates owner Kevin McClatchy allows him to move the team if a new stadium isn't substantially complete by Feb. 14, 2000.

With two seasons remaining on their lease at Qualcomm Stadium, the San Diego Padres are exploring sites for a new park in or near San Diego.

Reversing course, Interbrew SA, the Belgian-based owner of the Toronto Blue Jays, has decided not to sell the team and its SkyDome home.

Copyright © 1997 Doug Pappas. All rights reserved.
Originally published in the Fall 1997 issue of Outside the Lines, the SABR Business of Baseball Committee newsletter.

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