- The Washington Times - Monday, September 2, 2002

Sports Biz

Major League Baseball and its players averted another strike Friday, and according to union chief Donald Fehr, all should be well again in the land of baseball.
"The fact of a settlement ought to repair and enhance the game, and perhaps that's the biggest benefit of all in this," Fehr said.
The last-minute accord reached by owners and players is indeed a major step in the right direction and proved wrong all those who believed baseball could not reach a labor deal without missing games.
But baseball as an industry, and likely as a cultural institution as well, remains deeply troubled. Months of tortured negotiations and repeated public attacks by both owners and players on the game's economics and the other side's proposals have caused damage, and baseball's fiscal future stands as tenuous as ever.
Attendance is still down 6 percent for the year and on track to post the game's worst full-season average since 1997, the year before the classic McGwire-Sosa home run race. Meager crowds Friday night in Montreal, Florida, Cincinnati, San Diego and Detroit gave an instant indicator that the four years of labor peace to come are still not a panacea. The game's attendance has yet to fully recover from the 1994-95 strike, and the latest battle, though now over, represents another hurdle to clear.
Other indicators that measure baseball's might also show it's ailing. TV ratings for Fox and several individual teams have increased strongly from last year, but those gains are on some of the very worst ratings in the history of the sport. Any forward progress in the TV industry these days is big news, but baseball is still being challenged, and often beat, by viewing audiences for golf and preseason football.
Baseball leaders, all the way up to MLB commissioner Bud Selig, like to call the sport the greatest on earth and continue to refer to it as the national pastime. For sports fans and TV viewers, baseball is now simply another option on the dial.
Among the teams themselves, fiscal losses for clubs such as Montreal, San Diego, Toronto and Florida are very real. The new measures in the labor deal for increased revenue sharing and the return of the luxury tax should provide some help to the game's economic laggards. But there are no quick fixes in baseball. The extra help will truly advance only those teams who have the patience and acumen to engineer a steady march back to competitiveness on and off the field.
An ABC News poll taken Aug. 21-25 showed just 28 percent of Americans considered themselves baseball fans, matching a low posted immediately after the strike of 1994-95. The poll was taken at the very height of uncertainty the rest of the season would be wiped out. But the number is still remarkably low and trails that for the NFL and NBA. It will not come back overnight.
Selig, unlike his counterpart at the union, seemed to understand that Friday.
"I understand the fan reaction," Selig said. "All of us were very sensitive to the fan reaction. This clearly was a controversial [negotiating] process. There are a lot of things I wish wouldn't have happened."
So what happens now? Players and management cheered their ability to craft a deal before Friday's strike date was enforced. And a handful of scintillating pennant races, particularly in the AL West, promise to provide a daily and compelling advertisement for baseball.
But there was no genuine apology to the fans, TV networks, corporate sponsors and rank-and-file employees who represent the true economic engine of the game for the 10 months of grief now complete. Most observers today are savvy enough to know this deal could and should have been done much sooner than the morning of the strike date.
Had the players gone on strike, the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., planned to distribute letters from its board of directors to every visitor, thanking them for their patronage and expressing their hope that common ground would soon be reached in the labor fight. The Hall of Fame is an independent institution and bears no responsibility or role in the labor relations between owners and players. Yet, it still felt a need to reach out to fans more than it had before.
The NFL has learned that lesson, and will stage an elaborate party in Times Square Thursday to celebrate the start of the season. The NBA and NHL conduct similar feel-good events for its fans. In baseball, we have a temporary cease-fire to the daily verbal trashing that nearly toppled the industry.
"There is a passion still out there for baseball. I absolutely know there is," said Dale Petroskey, Baseball Hall of Fame president. "What everyone involved in the game needs to do is celebrate its history, its heritage and what makes this game so great and so unique."

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