- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 21, 2005

Unlike in past years, the words “golden age” or “great renaissance” haven’t been uttered in 2005 by Bud Selig, baseball’s catchphrase-happy commissioner, to describe the health of the game. But Major League Baseball continues to stampede into economic prosperity at an accelerating rate unforeseen three years ago.

As MLB executives slowly begin preparations for another round of labor negotiations with players next year, the fiscal indicators surrounding the game are markedly different than during any other recent set of talks.

• Aggregate attendance, boosted primarily by the success of the Washington Nationals, is up 1.9 percent and headed toward a record of more than 73 million. The increase would be the third straight yearly rise.

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• Twenty of 30 teams, including the Nationals, have operating profits according to Bloomberg News. The total is four times higher than the number of clubs with profits MLB reported in late 2001. Competitive balance also has improved, with 18 teams within five games of a playoff spot through Tuesday.

• Total MLB annual revenue now exceeds $4.5 billion, more than $1 billion ahead of 2002, when baseball signed its current labor deal.

• Fox Sports last year drew its largest average audience in six years for baseball and so far this season is tracking evenly with those numbers.

• MLB.com, baseball’s Internet portal, is projecting 1.3 billion visits this year, twice the number from 2003 and seven times the 2001 total.

“We have really begun — I don’t think people today understand how much the economic landscape of the sport has changed,” Selig said last week.

Even without widespread understanding, as Selig claims, the ongoing rise in baseball’s economics is hardly surprising. The game has benefited greatly in the last several years by epic playoff battles involving the popular New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox, St. Louis Cardinals and Chicago Cubs, as well as a series of history-making performances by Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens and other stars.

Similarly, an ever-growing contingent of international players and improved global marketing are quickly boosting overseas interest in MLB, highlighted by Selig’s recent push to create the World Baseball Classic. The Olympic-style tournament is set to begin in March despite public criticism of the event from several star players.

But the overall rise in fan interest for baseball comes amid still swirling suspicion of the true level of steroid use within the game, highlighted by a toughened set of testing standards and two high-profile Congressional hearings earlier this year involving Selig.

After a particularly embattled first appearance before the House Government Reform Committee, Selig responded by seeking union approval of another, tougher, “three strikes and you’re out” drug policy. The players have yet to respond formally to the overture.

In the meantime, Rep. Tom Davis, Virginia Republican, is leading a steady charge toward creating a federally mandated drug testing policy that would cover every major professional sports league.

“By all the traditional measuring sticks, baseball is still moving forward strongly,” said David Carter, a Los Angeles-based sports industry consultant. “They’ve shown a great deal of resiliency. And what’s happening on the field, of course, is a major driver of the renewed interest.”

Other issues, however, continue to confound MLB executives. The amazing success of MLB.com, itself a fast-growing, profitable entity, is countered somewhat by an unresolved spat with Fox Sports, one of baseball’s two national TV partners, over the distribution of live game video to wireless devices like cell phones. The network believes such activity could diminish traditional TV viewership, a view baseball challenges.

Within the TV universe, concern already surrounds the annual All-Star Game. Despite a heavy dose of corporate promotion for last week’s game in Detroit, Fox drew an all-time low rating of 8.1 for the American League’s 7-5 victory.

Also, baseball’s economic explosion has yet to reach long-suffering teams in Pittsburgh, Tampa Bay, and Kansas City — clubs that have struggled on and off the field through several fiscal models. To that end, Selig called managing the sport’s economics still his great challenge.

“Baseball is now as strong economically as it’s been in a decade. But they’ve only taken one step in a mile-long journey,” said Dean Bonham, a Denver-based consultant who frequently works with MLB clubs. “They’ve taken some very important medicine over the last few years, but more is still needed. So the next [collective bargaining agreement] is going to be more important than this current one, and I think both sides realize that.”

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