That was Keith Olbermann’s intro to last night’s show, where he used the occasion of the 20-year anniversary of the 1994 baseball strike to opine on the existential threat facing baseball today – kids not getting interested in the sport and declining national TV ratings. To that I would add weak ratings, even considering the sport’s weak general ratings, among people slightly older than kids – the 18-49 demographics advertisers love. He attributes the decline of national TV ratings to the adoption of interleague play removing the novelty factor of being able to see teams you’d otherwise only be able to see if your team made the World Series, requiring baseball to find “a new reason” to watch nationally televised games even when your team isn’t playing in them, thus keeping up the value of the national TV contract and in turn keeping smaller market teams in business. What should that new reason be, and how can baseball create it?
I’m going to assume that the problem is not that baseball is an inherently boring sport, something people have been saying for decades, even though even baseball’s fans sometimes wax poetic about the sport being “passed down from father to son”, which is another way of saying the only reason anyone would be a baseball fan is because their parents brainwashed them to be. I’m going to assume the sport can be saved when a lot of damage to its currency among younger people has already been done, which also requires leaving aside factors like steroids that might have poisoned the sport for a generation, and rendered its records, once a massive part of the mythology of the sport, untrustworthy forever. Even then, baseball has signed its new TV contract and as such there are some things it can’t change, like having TBS come out of nowhere for the postseason, and it can’t inoculate itself against cord-cutting when it’s just agreed to cut its presence on broadcast TV to a few weeks in the middle of summer and September in favor of a network that might be one of the first to go if cord-cutting results in catastrophe for linear cable TV. I’m also going to leave aside things involving the game itself like speeding up the pace of play or getting rid of Joe Buck.
With that in mind, it’s worth noting that football and basketball have the equivalent of interleague play, and significantly stronger national TV ratings – in basketball’s case, in spite of the fact that it has games on every day on cable TV just as baseball does, even though that is often perceived as “oversaturating the product”. They do this because they are able to craft a national narrative larger than any individual team, one driven by stars that encourages people all over the country to pay attention. Everyone knows the Patriots are “Tom Brady’s team”, or the Broncos are “Peyton Manning’s team”, or the Saints are “Drew Brees’ team”, and they automatically know what it means when any two of those teams square off and are willing to tune in for same. Ditto for basketball where the Cavaliers are “LeBron James’ team”, the Lakers are “Kobe Bryant’s team”, or the Former Sonics are “Kevin Durant’s team”.
Baseball is a star-driven sport – certainly more so than hockey, where the stars are only on the ice one-fourth of the time and don’t really have any more impact on the outcome than the lesser lines – and should be able to take advantage of the same factors, crafting a national narrative out of its pennant races. But there also are a lot of things football and basketball has that it doesn’t:
- Baseball has way more games in a regular season than football or basketball – nearly double the NBA’s number. Those games are divided up into series where two teams play each other day after day. When, say, the Clippers and Celtics face off, it’s an event among many similar events over the course of the season. When the Angels and Red Sox face off, they’ll face off once on MLB Network, then again on ESPN, then again on MLB Network – and if it’s on the weekend they’ll go MLB Network, then Fox or Fox Sports 1, and then ESPN. It sort of dilutes the knowledge that these two teams are facing off when you see them two to four straight days.
- Baseball may be a star-driven sport, but not nearly to the extent of football or basketball where one good player can completely change the fortunes of a franchise. No position player has much more than a one-ninth impact on a team’s fortunes. In football and basketball, that makes it much easier for smaller markets to join the ranks of the marquee franchises. The Moneyball era has made things easier for small-market baseball teams, but the lack of a salary cap, coupled with the need to put together a complete team on a scale not necessary in football or basketball, makes it very difficult to keep the marquee teams from being a procession of the Yankees and Red Sox over and over.
- In the case of pitchers, it’s too difficult to ensure that a pitcher is starting on the same day as one of your marquee national TV windows.
- Football and basketball stars are usually pre-made in college. People don’t care as much about high school or college baseball, and even if a sensation does come along they generally have to toil away in the minor leagues for a while, which people care about even less unless they have a minor league team nearby or are really interested in how their major league team’s farm system is doing.
There certainly are some things baseball can do about some of these – a while back, Awful Announcing’s Steve Lepore pointed out that the seeming dichotomy between shoving the Yankees and Red Sox down people’s throats all the time, and trying to “spread around” the wealth to all 30 MLB teams, misses that what baseball fans really want is to be able to see the good teams, whether they’re the Mets and Yankees or Brewers and Royals, square off against one another on national television, and follow the pennant races that way, and to some degree MLB Network (but not ESPN, which keeps following the former approach, and Fox, which tried the latter approach this year) has done that. Many, however, are things MLB has little to no control over, and to the extent that it does it’s probably as unlikely to try them as to get rid of interleague play. Does baseball want to substantially shrink the regular season? Is it willing to take the plunge on a salary cap?
With that in mind, perhaps the best thing baseball can do to improve its long-term fortunes, specifically in small markets, is to find a way to get rid of the RSN loophole, which is a big reason so much of MLB’s revenue sharing does come from the national TV contract. What is the RSN loophole? Well, here are the ten most valuable franchises in the major leagues according to Forbes magazine:
- New York Yankees, $2.5 billion
- Los Angeles Dodgers, $2 billion
- Boston Red Sox, $1.5 billion
- Chicago Cubs, $1.2 billion
- San Francisco Giants, $1 billion
- Philadelphia Phillies, $975 million
- Texas Rangers, $825 million
- St. Louis Cardinals, $820 million
- New York Mets, $800 million
- Anaheim Angels, $775 million
What do these teams have in common? Nine out of ten of them own all or part of the regional sports network that airs their games. The tenth, the Cardinals, are valued at a third of the level of the top-ranked Yankees – mostly because their fanbase draws from such a wide area. Owning a stake in an RSN has become all the rage in recent years, because while the rights fees that teams get from their RSNs are subject to revenue sharing, the boost that a team gets from actually owning a piece of the RSN is not. That’s allowed the Yankees to remain on top of the baseball pyramid despite the revenue sharing schemes baseball has adopted in recent years, through their ownership of YES Network. It also allows teams to benefit with money not subject to revenue sharing when other teams set up shop on the same network. When the Nets do well, the Yankees do well. When the Bruins do well, the Red Sox do well. When the Bulls do well, the Cubs do well. When the Warriors do well, the Giants do well. When the Flyers or 76ers do well, the Phillies do well. When the Mavericks or Stars do well, the Rangers do well.
The next-most valuable teams that do not own a piece of an RSN are #11 Atlanta ($730 million), which also draws from a huge fanbase built over the team’s years on WTBS; #15 Detroit ($680 million), the most popular team on a per-capita basis in baseball, and both of those two teams are from two of baseball’s larger markets; #18 Toronto ($618 million), which draws from all of Canada; and finally, #19 Minnesota ($605 million) and #20 Cincinnati ($600 million), two teams in the bottom half of all major league teams with four teams valued at double their value, and that don’t even double up the poorest team in baseball, the $485 million Tampa Bay Rays. The NBA and NHL don’t have this problem, either because they try harder to reach for the RSN dollar or the existence of the salary cap reduces the incentive to own a stake. Here is the complete list of NBA and NHL teams to own a stake of their RSN: Bulls, Blackhawks, Rockets, Bruins, Celtics, Maple Leafs. The seven richest baseball teams all own stakes of RSNs, and the number of teams in other sports that own pieces of RSNs are six total.
What can baseball do about this? They could try and find a way to go after revenue obtained from owning RSN stakes and draw it into the revenue-sharing fold. They could institute a salary cap and blunt the incentive to cheat the revenue-sharing system. Or they could look at the ongoing carriage disputes plaguing CSN Houston and Sportsnet LA – not to mention how ugly the dispute between the Orioles and Nationals over MASN has gotten – and wonder if the lucrative RSN market is built on a house of cards, the scam that is the cable subscription fee model, that is starting to come tumbling down, and find a way to pre-empt them all and save even the richest MLB teams from themselves, while also putting themselves in better position than their competitors for the future of video content. Again, baseball has already signed its national TV contract and is stuck with its cable-heavy nature for the foreseeable future, and the NBA may yet go the other way, but there might still be quite a bit baseball could do on the local front.