Longform

America's pastime is being subsidized by the American people

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Selig's office isn't any more effusive. "We are going to take a pass on this one," says spokesman Matt Bourne.

Still, it's safe to say that these fixed odds have deposed generations of fans in smaller cities across the land. In any given year, half the teams are in the midst of three-to-five-year rebuilding projects, since they're financially barred from the faster route of free agency. At the same time, the league has done little to make all that losing bearable.

While the NBA and NFL constantly remake rules for speed and action, baseball's last significant change was the designated hitter. In 1973.

The result has produced a spectacle once described by the Boston Globe's Ray Fitzgerald as "six minutes of action crammed into two-and-one-half hours." Forgive young men for preferring Call of Duty or football by the time the Fall Classic rolls around.

"Baseball has been declining in interest for some time in terms of the young male audience," says Patrick Rishe, an economist who studies sports at Webster University in St. Louis. "I think baseball is seen as archaic. The sport moves at a slower pace. Their athleticism doesn't jump off the screen. I think they have to find a way to speed it up."

But much like the Republican Party, the game is hamstrung by its sizable purist wing, those who believe the slightest change invites heresy. Meanwhile, the economic disparities continue to mount.

No one knows this better than the people of Kansas City. During the '70s and '80s, the Royals were a power on par with the Red Sox, despite playing in the country's 31st-largest market.

"Stands were filled," says Joe Posnanski, the town's former dean of sports writers at the Kansas City Star. "Everyone talked about the Royals. It was really one of the best baseball cities in America at that time."

Yet Kansas City stopped playing for titles in 1985, just as the league's crevice between rich and poor was becoming too wide to jump. The Royals sunk to little more than schedule-filler, a talent farm for the rest of baseball.

Players like Carlos Beltran, Johnny Damon and Zack Greinke "were traded before their contracts expired because the Royals said they could no longer afford them," according to Posnanski. "It started to feel like a vicious circle, and it depressed many Kansas City Royals fans."

He has no doubt that "if the Royals start to win, and win big, the young fans will get excited about them."

But that winning part is a big if. Local TV will bring Kansas City just $20 million this year. Even with an estimated $25 million in revenue-sharing, they're still at a four-to-one disadvantage against the Dodgers. Toss in a potential fan base that's but a speck of L.A.'s, and the Royals become a mom-and-pop clothier parked next to Walmart.

They might win a sale or two, even have a good year. But few succeed in business or baseball when the odds are this stacked.

Television's Strong-Arm Racket

The collapse of baseball's TV revenue won't come from die-hard fans. There's no indication that the sport's truest disciples won't pay more and more until there's nothing left.

The problem is non-fans, who are picking up most of the check.

Here's how it works: Just six companies control 90 percent of America's TV programming. And they won't let your local provider simply carry the channels you actually want to watch to keep your bill modest.

When Disney negotiates contracts, anyone who wants ESPN is usually forced to buy a bundle that includes lesser fare like ESPN Classic or ABC Family, whether they want them or not.

The same goes for programmers like Viacom. If you want Nickelodeon or MTV, you're also required to buy Logo and VH1 Classic, among the lowest-rated channels in television.

"It's incredible," says Matthew Polka of the American Cable Association.

"If you want one popular channel, they make you take ten."

Most contracts require that all channels be included as part of a cable company's "basic" package. That's why your TV menu is loaded with shows about tow-truck drivers and women who make bras.

"It causes us to basically be forced to provide a bloated, expanded level of basic cable service," says Polka. "Our customers know that these aren't channels watched on a regular basis, but they still have to pay for the monthly subscriber fee. Because of your market power, you are essentially forcing me to carry channels I don't want."

Baseball rides comfortably in the back seat of this strong-arm game. According to the research firm NPD Group, the average cable or satellite bill will reach $200 by 2020. Half of that fee will go to sports. And everyone pays, because most providers are barred by contract from moving sports to a premium package.

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Pete Kotz
Contact: Pete Kotz