America's Pastime. Yeah, Right

Back when baseball was fun, Robert Komie owned a choice piece of real estate: four box seats along the right-field line at Chicago's picturesque Wrigley Field. Now, though, clients of his carpet-cleaning company prefer basketball's Bulls. So Komie has given up his season tickets. And as a guest in a Chicago White Sox skybox on May 19, he left during the fifth inning, after the dessert cart came through. "I couldn't care less who won," Komie says. "I won't watch baseball now. It's too slow, too boring, the players are prima donnas, and the owners are arrogant."

In strike-scarred 1995, the Robert Komies of America are abandoning ballparks in droves. Baseball executives hope it's a pique that a good pennant race--or the end of the basketball and hockey playoffs--will cure. But increasingly, there is concern that the unresolved labor dispute is doing lasting damage to the game. Attendance is off, television viewership is down, and small-market franchises are on the ropes.

AILING BUCS. Now comes Walt Disney Co.'s May 18 announcement that it has purchased a controlling interest in the California Angels for an unimpressive $30 million. Unless baseball's economics change dramatically, that investment could signal the start of a series of low-ball deals. Without an agreement to share revenues among owners or a pay compromise with players, owners of small-market franchises may move to dump their clubs. And the teams could go cheap. "The day of the Baltimore Orioles selling for $175 million at auction are over," says Doug Metchick, general manager of Sports Franchises Inc.

The ailing Pittsburgh Pirates are set to change hands for a measly $86 million. The Kansas City Royals and Minnesota Twins are rumored to be on the block. Montreal, the winningest team in baseball last season, may be for sale. Toronto's vaunted Blue Jays could be sold, too, depending on the outcome of a takeover battle for parent John Labatt Ltd.. If so, a 25% decline in Toronto's home attendance this year won't inspire big-money bidding.

Even for top teams such as Toronto, fan rancor has grown and hardened. "For a lot of people, taking away the World Series last season was like taking away the American flag," says Philadelphia Phillies owner William Y. Giles. "I don't think we'll get a lot of people back until we get a labor agreement. And I think we've lost some people forever."

Despite strong showings in cities that boast fan-drawing new stadiums, such as Denver and Cleveland, attendance is down 20% leaguewide, as is television viewership. Television advertising billings have fallen as much as 30% in many markets. "Advertisers say: `We don't want to put our money into a sport that the American public is rejecting,"' says James MacDonald, general manager for the Kansas City Royals' flagship station, KSMO. Teams have lost up to half of their game-day promotion sponsors. And prospects for block-ticket sales--a key attendance booster--have grown increasingly slim.

The scary numbers are pushing the owners into action. On May 19, they agreed to pay $7.8 million withheld from the player's pension fund after last summer's walk-out, ending a threat by the players to boycott July's All-Star Game. Even as players' union chief Donald M. Fehr and acting Commissioner Allan H. "Bud" Selig hailed the move as a promising opening for contract talks, though no new negotiating sessions had been scheduled. In fact, few on either side expect a settlement to be reached before the season's end.

With nowhere else to turn for good news, owners are eager to talk about the Angels deal. They hope Disney's golden touch and entertainment imprimatur will rub off on a sport that has lost its cachet among fans and sponsors. "I'm thrilled about Disney because they know so much about family entertainment," says Giles. It could be that the smart money is buying into baseball on the cheap. But before work begins on the sequel to Angels in the Outfield, Disney will be stuck focusing on the project that's vexing all of baseball right now: getting fannies in the seats.

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