When more baseball is less

May 17, 1993

Looks as if some major league baseball owners haven't heard about the self-fulfilling prophesy. That's the prediction that becomes accurate simply because it is propounded. The baseball moguls have been predicting financial doom with the expiration of their lucrative national TV contract this year. They insist they can't afford all those stratospheric salaries they insist on agreeing to anyway. Fans are turning away from their tubes when baseball is programmed, they point out. Their remedy? More TV baseball, of course.

The problem with major league baseball is a slow erosion of devotion among its most committed fans. The tremendous success of the Orioles at Camden Yards and regular sellouts at other ballparks, such as Toronto's, are the exceptions -- not the rule. Most of the teams are struggling financially, though perhaps not as much as they profess. Attendance is down, and so is the TV audience.

So what do the owners do? They cry poor but dig their financial holes deeper with sharply escalating salaries. They weaken their bargaining position with the TV networks by proclaiming -- largely for the benefit of the players union -- that their revenues from broadcasting games will shrink drastically next year.

They alienate their hard-core fans by adding a quarter-finals quasi-championship series to the playoffs, thereby diminishing interest in the regular season. And they diminish the attractiveness of the new, sort-of playoff by deciding not to telecast all those games nationally.

The TV deal, in which major league baseball will take a share of the income rather than collect an up-front franchise fee, is drawing most of the initial criticism. Free TV sports broadcasts are an emotional subject, one politicians like to pounce upon. But the networks are commercial enterprises which play to their audience. And the fact is the audience for baseball is slipping. The networks are adjusting to that fact. The baseball owners aren't.

Adding the extra playoff series strikes us as an idea that may prove really destructive to baseball in the long run. For all the hoopla about post-season games, the real excitement for most fans comes from the six-month pennant races. Conceivably a team that finished second in its division during the regular season could emerge as world champions -- tarnished champions. New generations of fans are built during the summer, when school is out. The owners bemoan their fates even as they conspire to make them worse.

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