The Bozos Of October

In 1986, the year the Boston Red Sox played the New York Mets in the World Series, Boston native Larry Swasey was in a New York hospital with a serious heart condition. His doctors playfully told Swasey his allegiance to the BoSox might adversely affect their treatment program. This year, Swasey is sick again--sick to his stomach. The Red Sox are in the playoffs, but he can't get a game on TV. Because baseball is experimenting with its first regionalized playoff broadcasts, he'll get only the hated New York Yankees games at home. "I'm very, very upset with baseball," Swasey moans.

Join the crowd. Just when baseball fever should be hitting its peak with the launch of the classic fall playoff series, the mood is lousy. Regional playoff broadcasts are just the latest insult to fans who saw the players' strike snuff last year's exciting pennant drive and the World Series. Meanwhile, baseball is still plagued by all its old problems: labor strife, cash-strapped teams, a commissioner vacancy, and a failed broadcast strategy.

Irate fans and the lack of progress are costing baseball plenty. League insiders estimate that leaguewide revenues will reach just $1.4 billion this year, well below the $1.8 billion in 1993. Attendance started the season down 20% from last year and didn't budge, despite the new "wild card" format designed to boost late-season numbers. National broadcasting revenues will come in 20% below 1993's $1 billion, while local broadcast and cable advertising will fall to $400 million, a 30% drop. The numbers are so bad that even millionaire ballplayers are taking a hit. Average pay dropped to $1.07 million from $1.26 million, the first decline in eight years.

MUTUAL SUFFERING. That spells trouble in ball yards nationwide. Franchises that appreciated at a 15% annual rate prestrike are stuck in neutral: The Oakland Athletics, which projected a $20 million loss this year, sold for only $85 million. And newspaper heir Kevin McClatchy wants to pay the same amount for the near-dead Pittsburgh Pirates, also spilling $20 million in red ink this year. "We need to have a new order of economics to be competitive," says Pirates President Mark Sauer. His suggestion: wealthy teams sharing revenues with poorer teams, an idea owners can't agree on after three years of argument.

It's not just the basket cases that are hurting. The Houston Astros gave away tickets at the beginning of the season, and Florida Marlins owner H. Wayne Huizenga was selling $1 seats in September. The powerhouse Atlanta Braves signed only two new sponsors this year--barely replacing those lost during the strike. The Chicago Cubs, in the playoff hunt through the end of September, will probably lose $15 million this year, team insiders say. "This season has been a cold shower for players and owners," says Colorado Rockies owner Jerry McMorris, whose team continued to win in the box scores and ledger sheets.

Now it's looking as though 1995 is not so much a hangover from the strike as a harbinger of what's ahead. Labor talks have moved nowhere since play resumed in mid-May, and sources on both sides concede that major movement isn't likely until next year's spring training looms. And with the coming breakup of The Baseball Network joint venture among baseball, Capital Cities/ABC Inc., and NBC, the league has to negotiate a new deal even though it can't guarantee a strike-free 1996 season. "The trouble with baseball is they never repair the damage they've done," says Stanford University economist Roger Knoll, who has worked as a consultant to the players' union.

There's little time to waste. Since teams start selling 1996 advertising time as soon as 1995's last out is called, the uncertain labor and broadcast outlook will have an immediate impact. Worse still, some of baseball's core problems--slumber-inducing game length, a nonexistent marketing strategy, listless licensing sales, and the rich club/poor club dichotomy--won't be addressed while the league is preoccupied with labor and television troubles.

For many fans, the most immediate frustration is the league's decision to broadcast playoffs regionally, rather than nationally. Baseball Network officials declared before the playoffs that the network would satisfy fans with frequent score updates and cameos of fast-paced action from games played in other regions. It certainly did not satisfy Cleveland Indians fan David H. Resler, chief economist of Nomura Securities International Inc. in New York. The Tribe had gone since 1948 without a playoff win--16,816 games--and Resler couldn't catch their Oct. 4 victory over Boston. "I surfed through every cable channel I have," Resler says. "This stinks, and it's bad for baseball at a time when they don't need something that alienates the fans." True enough. Baseball's got fan alienation down to a fine art.