Baseball: Something For Everybody To Hate

Two blocks from Chicago's fabled Wrigley Field, the six pitching machines at Slugger's sports bar thwunk baseballs toward shaky batters. Nearby, television screens light up the action of four different Major League games. Overseeing the machines, Harvey Berger, 48, is incredulous at the news: Come October, 1994, only about half of baseball's playoff games will be available for viewing on Chicago television. "It would be a travesty for baseball fans," says Berger.

Fans aren't the only ones balking at the unorthodox new network broadcast deal between Major League Baseball and ABC and NBC. The six-year pact, announced on May 8, would scrap the huge fees that baseball usually charges networks for the right to telecast games. Instead, the league would form a joint venture with ABC and NBC to sell advertising and split the proceeds. Even by the league's most optimistic projections, baseball owners stand to make 40% less than the $265 million a year CBS is now paying.

The owners haven't ratified the deal yet, but the fine print already has some of them steaming. At least eight major-market owners are unhappy about having to drop 12 games from their local broadcast and cable contracts. Others worry that regionalizing telecasts--showing different games in different sections of the country--may lead to lower interest in the World Series. And fans might miss the tradition of Saturday afternoon games. Now, all games will air in prime time.

LATE CALL. What's more, the players' union is miffed that the league didn't brief union chief Donald M. Fehr, about the pact until the last minute. That may complicate labor talks between Fehr and the owner's representative, Richard Ravitch, scheduled to start some time after the All-Star break this July.

Certainly, the owners couldn't hope to do as well as they did last time around. CBS has lost $500 million on its four-year, $1.1 billion contract. But that won't make it any easier for financially strapped teams: National broadcast and cable rights now kick in 25% of baseball's total revenues. Under the new plan, the league would receive 88% of the ad revenue raised by the venture in 1994, and 80% a year for the rest of the contract (table).

But the league still thinks it won something of value: prime-time regular and post-season TV exposure. The deal would also add an extra round of wild-card play-offs. Philadelphia Phillies owner Bill Giles, who helped negotiate the package, says ABC and NBC are contractually obliged to promote baseball as much as any other sporting event, including the Olympic Games. "We're all going to work our fannies off to make this work," he says.

EXTRA INNINGS. They'll be busy. At a time when sports such as hockey and basketball are raising their national profile, the regional schedule may be tough to sell to fans and sponsors. The league championship series, for example, could air in only 17% of the country if two small-market teams are playing. "The deal stinks," says one TV executive who has negotiated previous baseball deals. "They're going in the opposite direction from the sports that have grown."

Baseball's broadcasters disagree. Sports such as college football thrive with a regional focus, says ABC Sports President Dennis D. Swanson. And the extra round of play-offs will pump life into baseball's flaccid TV ratings: "Right now, the schedule deteriorates after the division titles are locked up."

Convincing the players, though, is another matter. Their contract says they must approve the league's plans for an extra round of play-offs. But so far, the TV deal has generated only ill will and recriminations. Fehr claims that Ravitch phoned late on May 5 and gave him just 12 hours to approve an extra round. Ravitch says no such deadline existed and that he had no obligation to inform Fehr.

League management is scrambling to smooth feathers. Milwaukee Brewers owner Allan "Bud" Selig, baseball's acting commissioner, says the TV deal and a new labor pact are cornerstones for baseball's future. "For all this to work, there is going to have to be a reasoned, mature effort by all parties," he says. Combine dwindling ad revenue with a frayed labor relationship, though, and such a discourse seems a quixotic hope.

      Baseball's proposed TV deal means changes for teams, players, and networks:
      THE TEAM ABC, NBC, and Major League Baseball each would pay $14 million into a 
      venture to broadcast, sell advertising, and split proceeds from telecasts.
      PLAY-BY-PLAY Networks would air selected regional contests weekly during the 
      final 12 weeks gf the regular season. Divisional play-offs, expanded to include 
      wild-card teams, would be broadcast regionally.
      THE SCORE Profit-sharing would replace up-front rights fees, with MLB 
      collecting at least 80% of the venture's income. Baseball's 28 teams would 
      split roughly $158 million from national TV next year, vs. $265 million under 
      its deal with CBS.
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