- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 24, 2002

It's not like Major League Baseball to do the obvious, proper thing. Bud Selig's 10-year tenure as commissioner is marked foremost by one horrific work stoppage in 1994 and another barely averted this year, plus constant sermons on the troubled state of the game. And even strong successes, such as the playoff wild card and the three-division setup in each league, required some warmup time.
So it comes as something of a surprise that Selig last week formed a special task force designed to find new ways to promote and improve baseball. The panel to be comprised of league executives, players, media, academics, and a variety of marketing professionals is charged with one very broad but critical task: explore every possible way to reform the sport and sell it to the entire world.
No baseball-related topic is off limits, and the timetable for the committee's work is open-ended. Initial members of the task force will be named next month.
The result is one of the simplest and best ideas to come out of MLB offices in many years.
"Now that we have a new collective bargaining agreement, we need to turn our attention back out on the field," Selig said. "We need to do it, after three or four decades of, quite candidly, not doing that. And given the place that we play in society, we need to really hear from all people."
The work of the marketing task force will not be easy. Attendance fell 6.1 percent this year, last month's TV ratings for the Anaheim-San Francisco World Series were the worst ever and MLB's fan base continues to age more rapidly than those for the other three major professional leagues. On-field issues such as the lagging pace of play also dog the game.
But Selig remains quite ambitious about this task force. His Blue Ribbon Panel on Baseball Economics was formed more than three years ago with the aim of forming the template the owners' labor negotiating platform with the players. That panel, chaired by former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell, did so with a report calling for increased revenue sharing and a return of the luxury tax on high-spending teams.
The report was coldly received by the MLB Players Association, but the higher revenue sharing and luxury tax form the core of the new labor agreement.
Mitchell's group also strongly called for the relocation of troubled franchises, and the Montreal Expos will call a new city quite possibly Washington home in 2004.
"The Blue Ribbon Task Force report became a very, very crucial document from the time it was released [in July 2000] until we concluded the labor agreement, and I hope and believe this one will have the same positive and dramatic effect," Selig said. "I am very excited about the prospects of this initiative, and I expect some exciting ideas and results."
On one level, the formation of this committee is classic Washington-style politics let's just create another committee instead of actually doing something immediately to fix the problems. But it's important to remember that baseball always has been and likely always will be a slow-moving entity. And classic 12-step recovery programs call for recognizing a problem and openly admitting it exists as the crucial first moves.
Baseball stared down the barrel of an apocalyptic shutdown to the sport this summer and had the good sense to avoid that. Now Selig and his lieutenants are showing more good sense by exploring ways to fix the damage rendered by years of labor rancor and disaffected management.
The effort actually started soon after the labor deal was completed in late August with an ad campaign targeted to fans aged 18-34. The task force will work much more broadly to better not only baseball's sizzle, but the steak itself.
"We want to be very sensitive to the [many] concerns that have been made," Selig said. "Our fans have a passion for the game that is unmatched by any other sport, and we must make sure their love for the game never wavers."


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