|Doctoring Baseball: The Attendance Problem||| Print ||
Written by Jonathan Leshanski (Contact & Archive) on January 09, 2003
When I was a boy (not all that long ago if you ask my parents) one of the most wonderful things about baseball was the fact that it was a true competitive sport. Rivalries among teams like the Yankees and Royals were a true joy and created an excitement among kids of all of ages. The games meant something and were wonderful, close competitive games. The same held true for when you watched major market teams play against many of the small market teams.
This all changed in the late 1970’s with the establishment of free agency. Suddenly, the teams who could afford to pay for top name players were going on shopping sprees to the detriment of the small market teams. Within 10 years, smaller market teams( Like the Royals) began to deteriorate, and the balance within baseball slowly started shifting.
The primary reason for the shift was money. Players and their agents wanted the most they could get on the open market. Intrinsically, that is human nature and nothing to be condemned. Further, in many cases, players merely moved to teams which offered them a fair salary. However, sanity did not prevail. Instead of just correcting salary imbalances, salaries just kept growing.
Before this time, teams mainly lived and died by their farm teams, drafts and trading. Any local kid could tell you who was down on the farm, and who was up and coming. Developing a player into a major league talent was the way a team was built. It forced organizations to actually work to obtain and develop their players. It also kept the game very competitive, and a competitive team drew a lot of fans. One example is Kansas City which regularly drew 1.8-2.4 million fans. Almost every franchise, in fact, drew more then they do today.
Teams are still developing the talent. Just look at last year’s Minnesota Twins, or the last 10 years of the Montreal Expos. The problem is that they can’t keep it. Once a player becomes a big money free agent, the chance of a small team being able to keep him without making huge sacrifices in other areas of their team are nominal at best.
Last year’s labor deal did nothing to address this inequity. The deal struck penalized only the New York Yankees for overspending on salary. Contrary to popular belief is not added to the revenue sharing money paid out to poorer teams. In fact the contract agreed upon had no provision that the small markets teams spend any money generated by revenue sharing to raise their team salary!
While one or two owners might spend this money to improve their team, the odds are that most owners will be realists. $3-5 million dollars is not going to turn the Detroit Tigers, Tampa Bay Devil Rays or Milwaukee Brewers into contenders. In fact it might not even win any of them 5 more games during the season. So why spend it? If these owners are smart they’ll just put it in their pockets and thank the big market teams who have destroyed the small markets, by taking and monopolizing the talents which were developed there.
Solving the problem in the game is going to take more than just $5 million handouts. It’s going to take a real deal with the player's union. To fill seats a team needs to have some quality on the field. Until baseball realizes that the fans are alienated when their team has no hope of competing, baseball’s overall attendance will continue to shrink. Because of the this baseball may have already lost most of a generation of young would be fans. Right now that may not make a difference, but in 15 years when these fans could be paying to come to the ballparks, it may doom some franchises.
As it stands, more than half of baseball’s teams can already be counted out of the playoff hunt for the 2003 season (16 by my count). This is not because the teams are all badly mismanaged (though a few may be). The issue of why fans of these small market teams don’t come out is not rocket science. Realistically, how many people want to spend their entertainment dollars and time on a game that is not likely to be entertaining? Anyone who doubts this, should look at the difference in attendance between when weak and strong teams come to town.
Other sports have dealt with this issue by employing a salary cap, with very solid results. The National Football League is perhaps the best example of how parity helps the overall health of the sport. In 2003 attendance has been constant and high, and television viewership is up dramatically. The reason is that every game is worth watching. Critics say parity makes football boring, but the numbers say otherwise. Even with the “parity” that exists in football there are good teams and there are bad, and fans come out in force to root for their team be they the NY Jets or the Detroit Lions.
This is a serious issue because there are more entertainment options available than ever before. This means there is significant competition for a family’s entertainment budget. A family of four can go to several movies, buy video games, rent films and do sports like ice skating and bowling (among many others), for less than the cost of going to a ball game. With those challenges-- plus the competition of other pro sports-- owners, players and Major League Baseball need to realize that too many weak teams hurt everyone by driving away fan dollars.
Baseball can fix this, but its going to take some work and some compromise from both the owners and the Player’s Union. In my opinion, there needs to be contraction, a salary cap, and a salary floor. Expand the rosters to make up for some of the jobs that will be lost with contraction. Cap the salary at 80% of the leagues highest salary, and put a bottom at 35% above the lowest salary in the league.
Based on last year’s salaries that would lower the top salary contract from $125,928,583 to $100,786,066 and would effect only 4 teams, lowering the overall MLB payroll by $41 million.
On the other side, my proposed salary floor would raise the collective salaries of the low end players from $34 million to $46 million, effecting 8 teams and raising the MLB payroll by $48 million.
This would slightly increase the average salary in baseball, which the players union could not object to. Most importantly, these rules would push major league baseball back towards a state of competitive balance. Players could actually make decisions based not only on salary, but on where they wanted to live, and where they wanted to play. It might very well also help reestablish a tradition of players playing their career in one city.