Enthusiasm for baseball sliding even before strike

April 30, 1995|By Jon Morgan | Jon Morgan,Sun Staff Writer

Empty seats on Opening Day, disinterested advertisers and young fans focused on Michael Jordan and Eric Lindros, not Ken Griffey.

Fallout from the strike?

Guess again.

Although the 7 1/2 -month players strike bashed baseball's image, the most crippling marketing problems were there long before: tepid national television appeal, an aging fan base and fierce competition from one-time upstarts basketball and hockey.

Baseball is still a hugely successful and popular sport, selling millions of tickets a year and generating lush profits for many teams. But in just about every test of fan interest, from sales of caps to opinion polls, baseball has declined or failed to keep up with other sports in recent years.

"Major-league baseball needs to really sit down and re-evaluate itself and what it's doing. You can always find some isolated situation where people are doing things right, but it's not orchestrated or coordinated," said John Antil, an associate professor and specialist in sports marketing at the University of Delaware. "I think they were in trouble before the strike."

Even the sport's fiercest critics acknowledge its strengths: a rich history, terrific media exposure and an active network of youth leagues and amateur teams.

"To quote Mark Twain, reports of baseball's demise are just wrong," said Major League Baseball spokesman Jim Small.

The last complete season, 1993, drew a record 70 million fans. Although a pair of expansion franchises boosted those figures, they demonstrate widespread popularity, Small said.

"Baseball is very strong. That is not to say there are not some very serious concerns that we are trying to fix and that includes marketing to a younger audience and the lingering effects of the strike," he said.

Programs are in place, such as youth baseball and the national "Welcome to The Show" image campaign, Small said.

Others say the warning lights have been flashing for years, and a new jingle isn't the solution.

"The overriding trend with baseball has not changed much over 15 years and that is a cause for concern," said Richard White, former head of Major League Baseball Properties. White now runs Strategic Merchandising Associates consulting in New York.

"Does the game have appeal?" said Orioles owner Peter Angelos. "I think it is the most interesting and captivating sport of all. We are not doing the job, but we can do the job."

When asked what is their favorite sport, Americans have been overlooking baseball for years, according to polls by Gallup and ABC. The most recent, taken since the season started, showed baseball behind football and basketball.

The strike clearly had an impact. But there was erosion before the walkout. The percentage of people citing baseball as their favorite sport dropped from 21 percent in 1985 to 16 percent in 1990 to 12 percent today.

"The NBA has done a wonderful job of promoting the league and the athletes," said Shane Ankeney, a media research supervisor at the J. Walter Thompson advertising agency. "You just don't really see that for baseball. I don't see a really good campaign by the baseball guys to contradict that."

Although the aggregate ratings of local baseball broadcasts are enormous, the sport has had trouble drawing audiences to the network broadcasts that other leagues use to develop new markets and balance revenues between rich and poor franchises.

Cable and broadcast contracts worth about $365 million a year expired in 1993 with broadcasters complaining bitterly that they lost money. Rather than negotiate for a lower amount, the league created a partnership, called The Baseball Network, to produce regional telecasts with the networks.

The experiment was cut off early by the strike, but even preseason estimates had revenues at about half what they were under the previous arrangement.

The problem isn't necessarily how many people are watching, but who they are. Advertisers flock to sports programming to get the difficult-to-reach young, male audience that tends to shun traditional media.

"That's why the NBA was having such luck in recent years, they skew younger and do a great job of promoting their stars," Ankeney said. "The knock against baseball could certainly be that there are young people who are not being catered to."

Baseball's audience has been gradually aging in recent years, and is now weighted more toward the ages of 25 to 54, in contrast to the NFL's and NBA's strong appeal to ages 18 to 34, Ankeney said. And the trend is worsening.

Baseball ratings were respectable, if stagnant, in the final years of the network contracts. Saturday afternoon games captured 3 or 4 percent of American households, compared with about 4 percent for Sunday NBA games. The ratings champ, the NFL, typically attracts about 10 to 13 percent for Sunday games, Ankeney said.

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