The Home Run Baseball Badly Needs?

A World Series starring the Bronx Bombers may be just the ticket

A long players' strike had fans steaming. A newfangled playoff scheme generated distrust. Baseball was down. Then it got lucky: The much loved, much reviled New York Yankees, the biggest media draw in the country, grabbed a spot in the World Series.

Sound familiar? That was 1981. The Yankees-Dodgers series that year set TV ratings records and propelled baseball toward a decade of prosperity. Now, big league baseball, still without a commissioner or a labor contract, looks once again to the Bronx Bombers. The question: Can a boffo series played partly in the media capital of the world deliver an immediate restorative cash injection to Major League Baseball?

Nope. The payoff doesn't come in October. Sure, Fox jacked up its rates for unsold spots by 35% after the Yankees clinched, to nearly $400,000 for a 30-second ad. But most of the spots were already sold in post-season bundles at lower rates. While a seven-game series could bring in $150 million more, that's a modest return on Fox's $565 million investment in baseball.

The same goes for the clubs, which have to fork over to their players 60% of gate receipts for the first four games. That should total $6 million. Major League Baseball skims an additional 15% off the top. Owners don't get their hands on real money until games five, six, and seven--and even then, they have to split the take with their league. "Our expenses outstrip our income in some of the games," says St. Louis Cardinals Chairman Frederick O. Hanser.

Rather, the series is about generating excitement. If the Fall Classic is thrilling, fans may finally return to stadiums next year. If it scores with TV viewers, the networks, which paid $1.7 billion for a five-year deal in 1995, likely will keep paying top dollar. A splashy comeback, moreover, might lure lucrative sponsors, such as shoe companies. "The trick is to get Nike and Reebok really involved," says Phillies owner Bill Giles.

YOUTH APPEAL. For now, baseball's challenge is to put on a great show. This year, ESPN, NBC, and Fox televised all 14 of the divisional playoff games, helping to drive up viewership 26% from 1995; last year, it infuriated fans by only televising games regionally. And the fans tuned in to some white-knuckled drama, such as the Yankees' come-from-behind conquest of the Texas Rangers.

Now the Series. Rupert Murdoch's Fox Network has primed its youthful audience all summer for this Fall Classic, the network's first. Fox reintroduced a Saturday game of the week this season--a money-losing venture--and led into it with a kids' show, In the Zone. Given Fox's investment, profits are theoretical at best. More important, though, the network will get a showcase, second in ratings only to the Super Bowl, to promote itself and its shows.

The teams also regard the series as an investment. They will take home just $10 million or $15 million, at most--barely enough to land a second-tier southpaw in the free-agent market. Still, if this fall's series creates magic memories, baseball can market them for years to come.

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