The National Baseball League

If you needed any sign that pro football has passed Major League Baseball as the national pastime, check your favorite media outlet this weekend for its coverage of the NFL draft.

Training camps won’t open for three months, and the first games of the season are 4½ months away. Baseball has been under way for a month, and the NFL draft — players who may or may not even play in the NFL — will be on center stage. Not baseball, not the NBA playoffs, not the NHL playoffs.

Baseball is a great sport that is poorly run. The NFL is the greatest professional league in the history of sports. Even when baseball does something attempting to be innovative, it never seems to come off as well as MLB management thinks it should. Nearly as many fans hate interleague play as like it. (And with the Houston Astros moving to the American League to create two 15-team leagues, there will be an interleague game every day starting next year.) Baseball expanded its playoffs in 1994, but notice how many empty seats you see at Division Series games.

At the risk of sounding like Rex Harrison in “My Fair Lady” (“Why Can’t a Woman Be More Like a Man?”), to stop its popularity slide (baseball arguably is now the fourth most popular sport behind the NFL, the NBA and stock car racing), baseball needs to be run more like the NFL where appropriate. The challenge is to fix the things wrong with baseball while keeping what’s right about baseball.

Obviously there are some insurmountable differences between the NFL and MLB. One reason for the drama of the NFL season is that it is just 16 games long. It’s hard to say one game is of critical importance when that one game is one of 162 baseball games in a season. The NFL also moved playoff games to night a decade ago because bad weather makes football more compelling to watch. In bad weather, baseball either isn’t played or is a miserable experience to sit through.

Consider this: NFL games are almost always sellouts, because games that do not sell out do not get televised in the home team’s TV market. Having 81 home games gives teams the chance to sell more tickets, and fans who don’t go to games don’t buy food, drinks and souvenirs in the ballpark, and taking more money out of fans’ pockets is what the new stadiums, including Lambeau Field and Miller Park, are designed to do.

In 2011, four baseball teams — Philadelphia, Boston, San Francisco and Minnesota — sold 99 percent or more of their available tickets. (That comes from multiplying their stadium capacity by 81 home games. The Phillies actually sold 104 percent of their available tickets.) Two more teams — the Cubs and Brewers — sold 90 percent of their tickets, which would be similar to playing at Lambeau Field with 7,000 empty seats. On average, MLB teams sold 69 percent of their available tickets. Four teams — Seattle, Florida, Toronto and Baltimore — didn’t even sell half of their available tickets.

Baseball’s problem starts at the top, with its commissioner, former  Brewers owner Bud Selig. Obviously Selig deserves credit as an owner for getting the one-season Seattle Pilots moved to Milwaukee, and for campaigning to get Miller  Park built. Selig also has made worthwhile changes as commissioner, merging power formerly in the two leagues into the commissioner’s office in areas like umpiring. Baseball appears to be better marketed than it used to be (and the Brewers formerly were the worst), although MLB marketing still doesn’t hold a candle to the NFL.

As an authority figure, however, Selig pales in comparison to NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and NBA commissioner  David Stern. Calling him a car salesman (he was the owner of Selig Chevrolet) is an insult because car salespeople have personalities. Selig is not dynamic as a public speaker, and he doesn’t come across particularly well in the media, unlike his NFL counterparts. (Goodell is the second commissioner after Pete Rozelle, who was the best commissioner in the history of sports. Rozelle’s training was in public relations.) Maybe Selig is great behind the scenes, but you have to lead in public too.

Baseball would be better off with a more media-friendly commissioner. But baseball would also be better off with a commissioner who didn’t come from ownership. (Rozelle’s two successors both worked for the NFL before becoming commissioner.) Owners run baseball much more so than owners run the NFL, and the NFL has unquestionably been run better than baseball over at least my lifetime, and probably before that. (When baseball owners disparage themselves as not the sharpest tools in the shed, you know you have problems.)

The biggest difference, and the biggest thing baseball needs to tackle, is competitive balance, where every team’s fans can believe that their teams can get to  the World Series when they’re making their season ticket orders. There’s a difference between success due to your work (for instance, the St. Louis Cardinals) and being able to wave money around to buy who you want (the Yankees). When the baseball season began a month ago, several teams basically fell out of contention after Opening Day. Baseball fans are more fickle than football fans, in part because tickets are easier to come by with 81-game home seasons. But other the Cubs and Red Sox, whose ballparks have a lot to do with their appeal, most teams’ attendance is based on how the team does, or how the team did last year.

The genius of the NFL under Rozelle and a few influential owners was that they realized that the most important thing about the NFL is the game. When George Steinbrenner owned the New York Yankees, he was concerned about the Yankees, not the game; he couldn’t have cared less about the Brewers, Twins, Indians,  or other small-market teams. (In contrast, Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones will never become the commissioner of the NFL, thank heavens.) NFL owners figured out that their competition was not each other, but other ways to spend the entertainment dollar, even beyond other sports.

As a result, the NFL shares revenues more broadly than baseball.  Both leagues share national broadcast revenue, but baseball broadcast revenue is more important, and more imbalanced, than in the NFL. (That directly affects what you will read in the next paragraph.) Perhaps the mix of revenues between home teams and visiting teams needs to be nudged more in the visitors’ direction to give the home teams incentive to get more fans in the stands.

The NFL also has a hard salary cap, which baseball has never been able to implement thanks to the desires of high-income owners to be able to buy winning teams. USA Today reports that as of Opening Day, MLB payrolls range from $197,962,289 (the Yankees) to $55,244,700 (San Diego). The Yankees’ payroll is so out of whack compared to the rest of the league that the average of those two payrolls — $126,603,490 — is exceeded only by the payrolls of Boston,  Philadelphia, the Los Angeles Angels and Detroit. The Yankees’ payroll is 3½ times the payroll of the Padres. Guess which team has a better chance to get to the playoffs.

A huge difference between the NFL and baseball is that the NFL is unafraid to fine-tune its rules to improve their product’s fan appeal. The NFL started liberalizing its passing rules in the 1970s, and fan interest has increased steadily since then. Scoring is up, and yet games are not dragging past three hours unless the officials are flag-happy. In the past week, the NFL has considered eliminating kickoffs (because of injuries on kickoff coverage) and the Pro Bowl. Earlier this year, the NFL changed the regular-season overtime rule to match the postseason overtime rule, giving teams one guaranteed possession in overtime.

The last major rule change in baseball was the designated hitter, and whether you like it or hate it, it is ridiculous that half of baseball uses it and the other half does not. That is comparable to half of NBA teams using the three-point shot and the other half not using it.

Then there’s the issue of the slow … pace … of … the … games, particularly … in … the … postseason. The last game of the 1960 World Series, a dramatic 10–9 Pittsburgh win over the damn Yankees on a Bill Mazeroski ninth-inning home run, took 2 hours 36 minutes to play. In contrast, the shortest 2011 World Series game was 3 hours 4 minutes, and two of the games took more than four hours. (Which, in the case of 11-inning two-last-at-bat-comeback Game 6, was forgivable.) Games are dragging to the point where nine-inning postseason games run four hours, and yet baseball refuses to do anything to speed up the game. (Like, for instance, requiring umpires to use a standard strike zone instead of their own interpretation, or calling balls on pitchers who can’t throw a pitch within 10 seconds or strikes on batters who adjust every last piece of their own equipment out of the batter’s box. And speaking of umpires, notice that NFL officials are never accused of arrogance?)

To show how hidebound baseball is, the discussion for a few years has been whether to retain the 162-game season or go back to the 154-game season last seen in 1960. Yes, the world will change direction around its axis based on the fate of 10 days of the schedule.

The more radical move would be to significantly cut the schedule — say, down to 120 to 140 games over a season shorter by a month or more. Baseball is not meant to be played in weather more like winter than spring anyway. (Not a problem for the Brewers, but their first series at Wrigley Field was played in weather more suitable for a Bears game.) Imagine having the regular season over by the start of the NFL season, playing pre-World Series games in September, and then playing the World Series in early October. (The latter is how baseball was scheduled in the pre-League Championship Series days, when World Series games were played in the daytime and fans didn’t have to get out their football outerwear to watch.

A similarly radical move would be to take a page out of NFL scheduling. Instead of playing the same number of games against teams outside your division, baseball could rearrange itself so teams with the same divisional finish played each other more often. The better a team is one year, the more difficult (i.e. games played against good teams) the schedule would be the next season.

Baseball’s TV arrangement doesn’t exactly generate interest in the game either. The current TV contract places most of the regular season (except Fox Saturday games, which at least now are each Saturday of the season) and too much of the postseason on cable. A lot of homes still don’t have cable or satellite, which means fans got to see two series of the seven-series postseason, and, in Wisconsin, not a single Brewers postseason game on over-the-air TV.

Fox has been baseball’s exclusive over-the-air broadcaster since 2001. ESPN and TBS have carried games since 2007. In contrast, the NFL is on Fox, CBS and NBC, plus ESPN, and any ESPN game is carried on local TV in the teams’ markets. I’m not critical of Fox’s coverage (although announcer Joe Buck sometimes sounds disinterested), but I think baseball would be better served by having a second over-the-air network taking TBS’ place when TV contracts expire after the 2013 season. Either that, or playoff games broadcast on cable should be locally telecast since most fans don’t have access to postseason tickets.

There is a difference between doing things way they always have been because that’s the right way to do it, and doing things way they always have been because they’ve always done it that way. There is a difference between respecting tradition and being glued to tradition. The NFL is the former, and Major League Baseball needs to be less of the latter.

 

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