The Things that Got Baseball Into Its Mess Will Have to Get It Out Again

June 18, 1995|By JOHN B HOLWAY

Acres of empty seats are spreading like crab grass across the grandstands of America. Through Memorial Day, baseball ticket sales were running about 3.4 million less than for comparable dates last year. If each fan spends $20 on a ticket plus concessions, that's almost $70 million in losses. And the season is only one-fourth over.

Most teams were already deep in red ink even before last year's strike. Now some are looking bankruptcy in the faces as they try to pay 1993 salary scales with 1995 attendance income. And if they go down, their millionaire players will go down with them.

Already, the Milwaukee Brewers cannot pay their rent. Literally. How long before they won't be able to meet their payroll either?

How badly have the players and owners hurt themselves? They have shot down the greatest surge in baseball popularity in history and wiped out about eight years of growth.

Twenty years ago, the average big league crowd was under 17,000 a game. By 1994, it had reached over 31,000. This year it has crashed back down to under 25,000.

Baseball attendance rebounds after every war -- World War I, World War II, Korea. The post-Vietnam rebound was the most remarkable of all. Attendance soared inexorably for 25 years, 1969-'94, more than doubling from its wartime base, with no ceiling in sight. It seemed that nothing could stop it except another war -- until the players themselves brought it crashing down.

(Incidentally, in that same 23-year period, the average length of games has also been increasing. There is no basis to argue that fans are staying away because games are too long. Shortening games may be desirable, but it's a non-issue as far as increasing attendance is concerned.)

Suddenly contrite, the owners and players are begging the fans for ideas to save the game, by which, of course, they mean themselves.

Three things got baseball into this mess (no -- longer games is not one of them). They are: the players, the owners and TV.

Since these are the problems, the solutions must deal with them. Here, therefore, are three ideas, each dealing with one of the basic problems.

Apologies all around

Donald Fehr, head of the players' union, will crawl around the bases in every major league park, in his underwear, followed by the players carrying signs reading:

"WE REALLY SCREWED UP THE GAME

"WE WILL NEVER DO IT AGAIN"

Meanwhile, each time Cal Ripken and Cecil Fielder leave the tying or go-ahead run in scoring position, they turn to the crowd and announce, "I am asking the club to deduct $50,000 from my salary to be put into a fund to reduce ticket prices."

The owners share

All home game revenues -- sky boxes, tickets, concessions, advertising, and all TV and radio -- will be shared 50-50 with the visiting teams.

This will still leave the rich clubs the lion's share; the Yankees will keep half of a huge pie and the Padres half of a little one. But it's better than now, when the Yankees devour all their big pie alone and San Diego nibbles on all of its tiny one.

This is not charity revenue sharing -- this is recognizing fair economic value. If the Seattle Mariners don't show up for the Sunday game at Yankee Stadium, how much will the local New York TV network pay George Steinbrenner to televise the Yankees hitting fungoes to each other? The visitors provide half the show; they deserve half the dough.

TV and radio monopolies probably violate constitutional freedom of the press anyway. What will the teams do next, sell newspaper coverage to the highest bidder?

Without TV revenue, the teams will merely knock three or four zeros off the bottom line of their income sheets. But they'll compensate on the debit side by knocking a zero off each player's salary and baseball will go on as it did for decades before TV arrived.

The fans own the teams

Next time we'll be able to outvote the Hoffbergers. We'll have real debates over who should be manager and general manager. Each league will pass a bylaw making it unlawful for anyone to own more than 1 percent of a team's stock. That's about $1 million. Excess stock must be sold to the public at a par value of $100 a share.

The major leagues are now a billionaires' club. The Steinbrenners and Ted Turners buy big-league teams the way other men buy seats in the Senate. They talk about "strong local ownership." What stronger local ownership can there be than the fans themselves?

The billionaires may scoff that we fans will make a mess of the game. Are they kidding? Who got them into their present mess?

We new owners will make the decisions on how much to charge for tickets and skyboxes, how much to pay our players, and whom to hire and fire, from our center fielders to our general managers and our commissioner.

Twenty-five years ago, I bought five shares of the Baltimore Orioles for $25 a share over the counter. Every December, I attended the stockholders' meeting at Memorial Stadium. We ate hot dogs and drank Cokes, watched films of the last World Series and heard manager Earl Weaver tell us why the O's had won it or lost it. Beer baron Jerry Hoffberger was the majority owner, so all votes were pro forma, but we went home happy and bragged to our friends that "I'm an owner of the Orioles."

Next time we'll be able to outvote the Hoffbergers. We'll have real debates over who should be manager and general manager and whether to pay Bobby Bonilla or unload him, and what to charge the present Oriole owner, Peter Angelos, to rent a sky box from us.

Fan loyalties wil be stronger and city rivalries keener.

Baseball cash registers will jingle again.

And we new owner-fans will fill our parks with cheers.

John B Holway is an author and baseball historian who lives in Springfield, Va.

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