Baseball's bonehead TV play helps no one, not even self-serving owners

Phil Jackman

May 13, 1993|By Phil Jackman

For years, it seems, every Tom, Dick and Harry has been taking shots at baseball, describing it as a sport being run by wastrels, carpetbaggers and nincompoops and played by ingrates.

This has proven to be patently unfair and perhaps even erroneous of late, since certain of the game's lords have noted that the television contract its three-man negotiating committee is touting is a waste of the paper it is written on.

Pretty sharp, some of these guys, picking up on the facts that:

(1) There's no more rights fee, which used to do a nice job of nearly covering player salaries.

(2) They're giving up a dozen dates off their own cable and local over-the-air deals.

(3) The number of nationally televised games will actually be reduced despite another round of playoffs being introduced.

There probably isn't any noble intent on the part of the owners forming up to oppose the proposal unanimously approved by the TV committee. While the pleasure of fans no doubt enters their minds as often as the fifth Thursday of every month, it's how any change affects them directly that will always win out.

For example, the Yankees have a cable contract that nets them in the vicinity of $45 million per season. How eager are they going to be to rebate about 10 percent of that to assure network exclusivity one night a week when the contract goes into effect after the All-Star Game next season?

Say Wednesday night is "network night" for the six-week stints by both NBC and ABC during the second half of next season. Typically, between local rights holders Home Team Sports and Channel 2, about 10 of those games would slip behind the blackout curtain.

So how would that lost local revenue be recouped by the national contract? Only after baseball itself, now charged with the responsibility of selling the advertising and gathering up the sponsorships, had gone into virtually the same ad market and sold enough time at least to double what CBS has been able to sell annually (about $150 million).

One of the TV committeemen, Tom Werner of the San Diego Padres, went so far as to say, "You know what? I think we can do a better job of selling advertisers on baseball [than CBS has done]."

Pardon me, aren't the Padres the team that lost something like eight kabillion dollars last year, and spent the off-season unloading any unloadable salary exceeding minimum wage, which in ballplayerese approaches seven figures?

Granted, CBS has not turned in a sterling effort covering baseball and it has paid dearly, losing upward of $500 million over the last six years. Still, selling programming and making a profit in the process is its business and year-in and year-out it has been the most successful of the networks.

Naturally, baseball would have liked to have picked up a rights fee. But when the bidders talked about $120 million a year replacing the current $265 million, the game started pushing the "joint venture" idea for all it was worth.

What makes the proposal a good deal for TV is it's not putting out much money while contributing air time, which isn't worth much unless it gets sold. For the most part, the production costs of NBC and ABC won't be that high since it will be leaning heavily on local production under its regionalization plan.

Ah yes, regionalization. Come the new, first round of the playoffs, henceforth to be referred to as division (not wild-card) play, games will be running simultaneously in the National and American leagues so fans won't get to see all of them.

Recall how during the League Championships Series games would be on both afternoons and evenings, giving viewers the opportunity to see every pitch of every game, between-inning commercial breaks willing? Through the first five games of the best-of-seven series at least, fans will be restricted to seeing just one game.

Of course, if baseball does a heckuva ad-selling job during the contract and sponsors pay to have the names on home plate, the bases, the pitcher's rubber and the seat of the home plate umpire's pants, the rewards would be great since it scoops up 80 percent of revenues exceeding $170 million.

But, in case you hadn't noticed, the airwaves are filled with baseball games every night, making it hard to imagine a network package carrying any added significance in Couch Potatoville.

If this "framework for growth," as spokesman Eddie Einhorn of the White Sox termed it, is the best the committee could come up with, it has clearly failed because the proposed deal is in virtually no one's best interest. And bypassing any player involvement in the process to this point is further evidence that a lot of the owners still harbor a plantation mentality.

They're the wastrels, carpetbaggers and nincompoops we all know and love.

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