As I watched the World Series last night, I found myself thinking what 2010 might hold for baseball. While some people might say I’m looking too far into the future, I would remind them that, even in early November, Major League teams must have their eyes on the season ahead.
The smart front offices do. They are focusing now on revenue – specifically, on how to grow revenue in an economy that has shown faint signs of a recovery. That’s also an important area for fans to concentrate on, because revenue concerns will explain the timidity in which teams they follow will enter free agency.
The odds of seeing a mega-contract such as CC Sabathia and Mark Teixeira signed last offseason are about as good as the NFL changing its mind about allowing Rush Limbaugh to buy a stake in the St. Louis Rams.
Unless you root for the Yankees, you likely won’t see money flowing on talent. What you will see is your team packaging all sorts of come-out-to-the-ballpark incentives to get butts in the bleachers.
That’s not just my belief here; Forbes.com raised the same issue with Bob DuPuy, the No. 2 man in the Commissioner’s Office, when it asked him last Wednesday to discuss the state of the game.
DuPuy sounded hopeful.
Conceding the revenue challenges, he offered what might be the only solution the sport has if it intends to return soon to the salad days of the mid-2000s. Nothing is better for baseball than a good ol’ pennant race.
The lack of good races – and the economy -- slowed the turnstiles as the dog days of August rolled into September this past season. Most of the divisional races were locked up by then, and who would want to shell out top dollar to see small-market teams like the Indians, Pirates, Nationals, Royals, Padres, Reds, Orioles and Athletics play?
They weren’t the only bad baseball teams. They were, however, teams with the most economic limitations. None can do what big-market teams like the Cubs, White Sox, Tigers and Mets can: spend their way into contention. So the small-market teams will have to show creativity to draw crowds. Those teams can’t sell championship baseball, because they would be peddling a lie.
You never know about sports, though. Strange things have been known to happen; one or two of those small-market teams might surprise. They could pull off what the Tampa Bay Rays did in ‘08 and wind up in the World Series.
If they do, they won’t do it because they brought in a high-price free agent. They will have to rely on what they have in their organizations, which is young, cheap and unproven talent.
Unproven talent is a hard sale to fans who want to see stars in the lineup, if they can’t see a winning ballclub. So if they can’t have either, they’ll need a reason to go to the game.
And that’s the dilemma baseball faces, one that is uncomfortable for the lords of the game to discuss. But if they can’t discuss tense pennant races, what else is left?
They know what pennant races will do. They know what $1 hotdogs, fireworks and $5 bleacher tickets will do when fans are watching lousy baseball. Those promotions might draw some people to the ballpark, but promotions won’t full the place.
That’s the challenge in 2010 for DuPuy, a fact he’s mindful of. As he told Forbes.com: “Holding our own would be a good objective.”
DuPuy is correct.
Yet even that might not be possible next season with a bad economy and no decent pennant races to keep fans interested in spending money at the ballpark.