Contract has been clinched, but sport is still losing fans

National pastime beset by declines in attendance and television ratings

August 31, 2002|By Jon Morgan | Jon Morgan,SUN STAFF

Peace has prevailed, and the games will go on. Now the big question: Who cares?

Though it has managed to avert a work stoppage for the first time in 30 years and taken steps toward solving its revenue inequality, Major League Baseball remains beset by declines in fan interest, attendance and television ratings.

A recent poll by ABC found that fewer than a third of Americans consider themselves baseball fans, the lowest level since the 232-day strike that ended in 1995. In addition, an International Olympic Committee panel has recommended that the Summer Games drop baseball, the modern pentathlon and other sports that officials regard as having outlived their usefulness.

"It's just gotten so out of hand," said longtime Orioles fan Betty Loomis of Ellicott City.

All the talk of steroids and multimillion-dollar salaries has taken its toll on her enthusiasm, she said.

Ticket costs have spiraled so far out of reach that she has attended only two games this year, one of which was on a bargain night, she said. The thought of millionaires complaining about their salaries has her shaking her head in puzzlement.

Baseball attendance this season is running 6 percent behind last year, and per-game averages have yet to recover from 1994, when a strike forced the cancellation of the World Series and more than 900 games.

Fox, which has a $2.5 billion, six-year broadcast deal with baseball, had to discount the price of advertising time for last year's World Series, and in February, anticipating losses on all its sports programming, Fox took a $909 million, pre-tax write-off, including $225 million for baseball. Fox blamed a soft advertising market.

This year's All-Star Game, which concluded with a tie, produced the lowest ratings in the game's history.

As a "brand," the value of baseball has been slipping for several years, said Robert Passikoff, president of Brand Keys, a New York company that polls thousands of fans every year to gauge their attachment to various sports. The results show that baseball has skidded. "There's been a serious erosion of fan loyalty," he said.

The labor settlement is unlikely to repair the damage of the protracted negotiations, during which the airwaves and newspapers were full of stories about bloated payrolls and a possible shutdown of the game, he said.

News not all bad

However, analysts who follow the sports industry say the news is not all bad for baseball. The sport has made gains in recent years among younger fans, and a newly organized league office has boosted sponsorships. Although its popularity has dipped, it remains the country's second-most-popular spectator sport, behind the National Football League's product, according to ESPN.

"It seems to be holding its own. It's not growing, but it's not dipping," said Tracy Schoenadel, executive director of the ESPN Sports Poll, which tracks the popularity of sports.

After the strike of 1994-1995, only 53 percent of American sports fans 12 and older identified themselves as baseball fans. That number grew in the ensuing years as home runs and Cal Ripken displaced labor discord in the minds of fans. It peaked at nearly 62 percent in 1998, when Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa were dueling for the home run record, but it has fallen back to about 59 percent during the past year.

Schoenadel predicts that popularity will dip again as the negotiations take their toll but should then recover. "It's got to take time to heal itself after a year of strike talk," she said.

Awaiting playoffs

John Mansell, a media analyst with Paul Kagan & Associates, predicts that fans will soon shift their attention to the baseball playoffs. But the ratings of over-the-air, regular-season broadcasts of games have fallen by 25 percent during the past decade.

That's not disastrous, compared with figures for the rest of network television, he said. Viewership of all programs has fallen as a proliferation of channels has divided the audience among more and more shows, Mansell said.

"Baseball still draws well, and the fact of the matter is in the summer months it has very little competition," Mansell said.

Consultant and former CBS Sports President Neil Pilson said, "Baseball has had some reasonable ratings in recent years. In the long run, baseball is what it is, and competitive games and competitive teams are what the fans want.

"It's had a good couple of years, with lots of records being broken and compelling personalities and stars," Pilson said.

Financially, expanding the luxury tax and revenue sharing among teams will be merely a "patch," said John Moag, head of the Baltimore-based sports investment firm Moag & Co.

"The game still needs a lot of work," Moag said.

Yet, baseball is baseball - the sport of Babe Ruth and Jackie Robinson and Barry Bonds.

"It is still the national pastime," said Stephen Disson, president of Disson & Associates, sports consultants. "I don't think a settlement solves all the problems. But it prevents a much more serious problem."

Historian Charles P. Korr, author of The End of Baseball As We Knew It: The Players Union 1960-1981, agreed. He said he sees a silver lining in the angst over a possible strike.

"The fact that people keep getting mad and saying they hate what the people who run the sport are doing to it shows they care about the sport," Korr said.

From a marketing standpoint, the sport needs to reach out to fans, said David Cope, director of business development for the Gilco Sports & Entertainment of Bethesda.

"I think they still have work to do, but they have taken the black cloud away, and it will allow them to market the game without the threat of labor unrest," said Cope, a former Orioles executive. "Baseball has been around a long time and has survived a lot worse things than a potential strike."

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