- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 22, 2000

Baseball commissioner Bud Selig told a Senate antitrust subcommittee yesterday he has enough owner support to fix the game's troubled economics and expressed confidence he could convince the players union to accept long-hated salary restraints.

"The vast majority of owners will be supportive at that moment of truth to approve new measures," Selig told the Senate subcommittee on antitrust, business rights and competition. "We're not fooling anybody anymore. This is the biggest problem facing the game."

Sen. Mike DeWine, Ohio Republican and subcommittee chair, called in Selig and other leaders in the game to press them to act on a report from the Commissioner's Blue Ribbon Panel on Baseball Economics. The 4-month-old report, designed to address the startling competitive and revenue imbalance in baseball, contained numerous suggestions to alter the game's finances.

Foremost among those calls were a 50 percent tax on all payroll spending above $84 million, a minimum payroll of $40 million and far greater revenue sharing.

Teams have shared about 20 percent of local revenue since 1996, something of a feat considering owners resisted such a measure for more than a century. But the imbalance only has grown worse as the game's eight highest spending teams have won all but three postseason games and every World Series game since 1995. And even with record overall attendance for the 2000 season, rising cable TV revenues for many teams and nine new stadiums since 1994, at least 18 of 30 teams lost money this year, Selig said.

"Competitive imbalance does indeed exist, and baseball's economic structure is ultimately responsible," said George Mitchell, former Senate Majority Leader and Blue Ribbon Panel chairman. "If the current trend is not reversed, baseball's status as an accessible, affordable and competitive spectator sport may be jeopardized."

Since the report's July release, many baseball observers have suggested Selig would face a decidedly uphill task selling the Blue Ribbon report to both large-market owners and the players union. Despite Selig's far-reaching powers as commissioner, support from both groups is required to implement most Blue Ribbon points.

Donald Fehr, union chief, could not attend the hearing because of a personal commitment but has long held that the union opposes any artificial restraints on salaries.

Selig, however, testified that the competitive payroll tax and minimum payroll provision if implemented properly would not depress salaries and ultimately speaks to the union position.

"The more teams that are competitive, the more teams that have a chance to win, the more that we have hope and faith, the better off the players will be," Selig said. "It's been interesting to me the numbers of players on small-market teams who have commented publicly and privately how frustrating [the imbalance] has been."

The news left DeWine satisfied for now. The senator told Selig he has no plans to introduce any legislation concerning baseball, most notably a repeal of the game's cherished antitrust exemption.

"The good news for fans is that Selig has told me that he has the [owner] votes to implement much of the Blue Ribbon Report," DeWine said. "The bad news is that there's no timetable."

That last point is where Selig became most vague, both during his testimony and with reporters afterward. The league's collective bargaining agreement with the players expires after the 2001 season, but Selig declined to specify when he would begin action on any Blue Ribbon point or even start CBA talks with the union.

"There's no overt public event on this coming up, but I can tell you this problem is only getting worse and is not going way. As far as the CBA goes, this round of talks is going to be much different, much quieter. Baseball's days as a public spectacle are over," Selig said, referring to the contentious and oft-publicized talks during the 232-day players strike in 1994-95.

The commissioner has softened his once-firm opinion against team relocation, and moves are a suggested remedy in the Blue Ribbon report. But any relocation, most notably to Washington, appears far from imminent. Selig again confirmed there will be no moves in time for the 2001 season and refused to speculate on the possibility of any for 2002 and beyond.

"If we don't change the system, moving franchises won't help," he said.

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