- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 24, 2002

Looming labor strife. Escalating ticket prices. Widespread competitive imbalance. Games played at a sloth-like pace. The landscape of Major League Baseball is so troubled that one has to wonder about the strength of the sport's hold on American culture.
But if 2002 ticket sales are any measure, that hold remains rather strong. Following an ugly offseason complete with an aborted effort to kill two teams and a Capitol Hill tongue-lashing for commissioner Bud Selig, roughly half of MLB teams have bucked the odds and either posted solid increases in season or overall ticket sales from the same point a year ago or held steady.
Leading the charge, though certainly not in overall sales, are the Minnesota Twins. After baseball failed to eliminate the franchise during the offseason and owner Carl Pohlad put it up for sale, the Twins' angry and bewildered fan base again showed its love for baseball, quickly buying more than 5,000 season tickets. The team is now eyeing 7,000 full-season accounts and is aiming for 2 million in total attendance, which would be the team's best showing since 1993.
Though baseball tickets remain an impulse buy or one made only a few days in advance for many fans, most MLB teams sell more than half their tickets for any one season before Opening Day. As a result, another campaign of more than 70 million in total MLB attendance already looks likely.
"There is clearly a very strong passion for baseball," said Gene Orza, associate general counsel for the MLB Players Association. "During previous work stoppages, I've had fans yell at me that they'll never attend a game again. I tell them that's exactly why they'll come back. If you're a fan, you're not indifferent."
The boost in ticket sales runs counter to those for advertising during TV baseball games and the overall state of the U.S. economy. Fox Sports has already acknowledged some uneasiness among ad buyers because of baseball's labor climate, and the coolness also is being felt among local and regional TV outlets.
"We have an advantage that perhaps some other sports don't in that you can still just walk up and get a ticket without a large or advance commitment," said Matt Dryer, the Baltimore Orioles' director of sales.
The Orioles are trailing the ticket sales paces during from their 1996-97 heyday and even from last year's 63-98 debacle. But with more than 1.9 million seats already sold for 2002, the Orioles still have a fair shot at registering 3 million by year's end, a total more than half the league's teams would love to have.
Some of the ticket sales increases were obvious and expected. The Arizona Diamondbacks have added more than 2,900 season ticket holders since winning the World Series, the first year-to-year bump in sales in franchise history. Seattle sold an additional 4,000 season tickets after its record-tying 116-victory season.
San Francisco with one of the most picturesque ballparks, Barry Bonds and a solid top-to-bottom club will again top 3 million. And the New York Yankees and Mets, with their massive market and loaded rosters, enjoy one of the easiest sales jobs in sports.
Several decreases also were foreseen. Milwaukee, Colorado, Texas and Pittsburgh all report significant dropoffs after disastrous 2001 seasons. It's next to impossible to sell a ticket in Montreal or Florida, still the two prime candidates for contraction. Cleveland, while still a popular draw, is trying to follow the New England Patriots' model of success by relying on lesser known and less expensive talent.
The decent sales data, however, presents something of a Catch-22 for Selig. On one hand, it encourages sponsors evaluating lucrative commitments to baseball in a down economy and gives Selig fresh data to keep marketing baseball's "renaissance," a term he has used thousands of times in recent years.
But on the other hand, it also makes it more difficult to convince Congress, the players union or any other skeptical body that baseball is truly hurting. Aside from the union, few really dispute that competitive imbalance exists in baseball. But most observers of the game have a hard time reconciling Selig's claims of a $519million fiscal loss for MLB in 2001 with the Orioles again tracking toward 3million in attendance after four straight dreadful seasons.
"Baseball has a lot of problems, but there is still definitely a market out there for big-time sports," said Ed Goren, Fox Sports president.


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