As baseball fans across the nation gear up for the World Series, here are 10 things about Major League Baseball they might be surprised to know.
1. "So much for the national pastime."
As of 1985, a quarter of Americans considered baseball their favorite sport. But with Nascar and soccer on the rise, that figure had dropped to 14% by 2006, according to a Harris Poll, or half as much as pro football. Over the same period, according to Nielsen Media Research, postseason TV viewership fell by half; the 10 worst-rated World Series have all been played in the past decade.
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Baseball's problems are worsened by inconvenient game times, designed to snare prime-time ad dollars. Afternoon playoff games are a relic, night games on the West Coast don't begin until after 10 in the East, and World Series games routinely end after midnight. "It's not conducive to new fans," says sports writer Buster Olney, who has covered baseball for 18 years. "No kid could stay up that late."
An MLB spokesperson says the game is "quite healthy," pointing to increased attendance, Web site hits and fantasy-baseball interest. But Gary Gillette, co-chair of the Society for American Baseball Research's Business of Baseball Committee, disagrees. "The diehards will always be there for baseball," says Gillette. "But the casual fans have left in droves."
2. "Scalping tickets is illegal — unless, of course, we do it."
in 2002 Richard Kosterman was arrested and convicted under antiscalping laws after trying to sell an extra ticket to the Mariners' opening day. He challenged the ruling — not because he disputed the charges but because the team was doing the very same thing.
Since 2001 teams have partnered with online brokers, allowing ticket holders to sell their seats for whatever the market bears; the team gets the initial sale as well as a 25% cut of the profit from the resale. Not only are fans held hostage by this institutionalized price gouging (resale price, and not face value, is printed on the ticket), but any competition is eliminated. In August, MLB tapped StubHub to be its exclusive reseller in the estimated $10 billion market. "Baseball saw ticket resellers as a threat," says lawyer Kim Gordon, who represented Kosterman, "so they decided to get their cut and try to force the other guys out."
Challenges to the policy have generally failed on grounds that online sales fall outside municipal scalping laws. "It's completely legal," says Rebecca Hale, director of public information for the Mariners. "There's nothing left to be said."
3. "We're as American as apple pie — and job outsourcing."
A study by the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport at the University of Central Florida showed the number of Hispanic players has doubled since 1990, up to 29.4% as of last season. Baseball has become "highly dependent" on Latin America, says Adrian Burgos Jr., author of "Playing America's Game: Baseball, Latinos and the Color Line."
Signing bonuses for Latino players are comparable — rarely more than five figures — to those of American players taken in the seventh round of the amateur draft, says Alan Klein, author of "Growing the Game: The Globalization of Major League Baseball." Compared with the routine seven figures given to top American players, it's no wonder several hundred are signed each year from the Dominican Republic alone. "Teams are looking for a competitive advantage," says Burgos, "sometimes at the expense of exploiting workers." (An MLB spokesperson declined to comment.)
Foreign-born players now account for almost half of minor league rosters — though 98% will never make the majors, says Jose Luis Villegas, author of "Away Games: The Life and Times of a Latin Ballplayer."
4. "We make it tough for you to watch your team play."
"Watch every game live!" trumpets MLB.TV, an online video-on-demand service that's designed to let fans keep up with their favorite teams even if they can't see them on TV. Tell that to Steve Buhr. The Cedar Rapids resident, like the rest of Iowa, is unable to watch games for six different teams that claim the state is in their broadcast range. To protect the teams' market share, the league blacks out local games on MLB.TV and Extra Innings, the cable and satellite package, though fans pay up to $200 for these services.
The culprit is an arcane map of "broadcast territories"; 30 years after it was drawn, though, games are shown on regional cable channels. An MLB spokesperson says the league is aware of complaints and is looking into the problem, but that's little consolation for folks like Buhr, who is a four-hour drive from any major league stadium. A fan of the blacked-out Minnesota Twins, Buhr canceled his MLB.TV in the spring and has resigned himself to watching highlights the next morning, since his cable company doesn't carry Twins games. "If you picture a wheel with spokes, the hub would be Cedar Rapids," he says. "It's not a good place to be a baseball fan."
5. "We still haven't cleaned up our act."
According to Major League Baseball, Mark McGwire's 1998 home-run-record chase netted it $1.5 billion in ticket, merchandise and ad sales — though there are now suspicions he was using steroids. Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams say in "Game of Shadows" that baseball knew for years that steroids were behind the new power-hitting face of the game, but it didn't take action because of the money. "They're seeing these players show up with all this new muscle, and they're not stupid," Williams says. "There's a willful looking the other way."
In the wake of the scandal, MLB has adopted drug testing, but its policy has holes: For example, a maximum of 5% of major leaguers are tested off-season. There's also the problem of designer drugs being created, for which no tests exist. And where the Olympics has spent almost $10 million trying to develop a reliable test for human growth hormone, baseball gave only one $500,000 grant, to Don Catlin of the Anti-Doping Research Institute. "It can be done," Catlin says, "but I'm not sure it can be done for the budget we have." (A spokesperson for Major League Baseball declined to comment.)
6. "The players aren't the only ones getting injured."
A Seattle Mariners game in 2000 would have been only the second one Dee Middleton-Taylor attended, but she never even made it to her seat. "I was thinking, this is a great day, and the next thing I know, I was hit," she recalls. She had been struck in the face by a ball in pregame warm-ups. It shattered bones in her face and lacerated her cornea, requiring multiple surgeries. "You don't expect anything like this to happen," she says.
Maybe you should. Injuries among fans struck by balls are more common than you might think, says Middleton-Taylor's lawyer, Brad Fulton. The team was compelled to turn over five years' worth of incident reports, and Fulton says the file was five inches thick. "Sometimes there are four or five or six a game," he says. "Way more than they want you to know." (Hale, speaking for the Mariners, says that five injuries in one game does happen but is unusual.)
King County's superior court ruled against Middleton-Taylor, holding that fans assume the risk when they enter a ballpark. "There are warnings on the ticket," says an MLB spokesperson, "and announcements made before the game. Fans should be aware."
7. "Our accounting defies the laws of nature..."
Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig told Congress in 2001 that the league showed a $232 million loss for the year, but only months later Forbes reported the figure as an operating profit of $75 million. Though baseball disputes the methodology, no one denies that the game's finances are as complex as they are secretive. Experts paint them as the antithesis of most accounting scandals: Team owners exaggerate their losses. "When they say they're breaking even, they're making money," Gillette says. "And when they say they're making a small profit, they've got a printing press in the basement."
Owners pay themselves and family members for executive positions (the Yankees' George Steinbrenner has variously employed two sons, two daughters and three sons-in-law), and, of course, the salaries are listed as expenses. Most significant is the revenue from concessions, parking and television, which aren't counted as profit even though the money goes straight into the team's coffers. As former MLB President Paul Beeston famously boasted when he was a Toronto Blue Jays executive, "I can turn a $4 million profit into a $2 million loss and get every national accounting firm to agree with me."
8. "...while you're the one picking up the slack."
Baseball's annual revenue tops $5 billion and is rising every year. So only by crying poverty can teams like the San Francisco Giants, who raised ticket prices 129% from 1995 to 2005, justify quadrupling the national inflation rate. The average cost for a family of four to see a game now tops $175, according to Team Marketing Report, a sports marketing publisher. "If fans think [teams are] making too much money," says Gillette, "they'll be less willing to pay rip-off prices for hot dogs and scorecards."
But where the public gets soaked the most is in the construction of new ballparks. Nineteen new stadiums have been built in the past 15 years, with six more on the way. And with only one exception, those new parks are largely or entirely funded with tax dollars. "They don't have to pay for the stadium, and they don't have to pay property taxes," says Neil deMause, author of "Field of Schemes: How the Great Stadium Swindle Turns Public Money Into Private Profit." "But they get to keep the gate receipts. Does that seem fair?" It's not chump change either; deMause says the new Yankee Stadium will cost $1.3 billion to build (though the team initially told the city it would run $800 million), with roughly half covered by local, state and federal tax money.
9. "We've got friends in high places."
With no equal in American culture, baseball enjoys a lot of special treatment. But perhaps none is more striking than the unique antitrust exemption it has held since it was granted by the Supreme Court in 1922. Calling it a "historical anomaly," Andrew Zimbalist, economist and author of "In the Best Interests of Baseball: The Revolutionary Reign of Bud Selig," says the ruling came down "partly because at that point in time interstate commerce had a different meaning, and partly because Oliver Wendell Holmes and William Howard Taft were big baseball fans."
A spokesperson for Major League Baseball calls the effects "negligible," but the ruling leaves the league with very few checks on its power. Minor league players are bound to their teams, team owners have major hurdles to jump to sue the league, and the league can decide where a team plays. Montreal Expos fans found this out the hard way, when MLB up and moved their team to Washington, D.C., after the 2004 season.
10. "The most valuable thing in a pack of baseball cards is the gum."
Collecting baseball cards sure isn't what it used to be. Over the past quarter-century, many fans have hung on to their childhood collections with the expectation that they'd be worth a lot of money one day. But in today's market, that's highly unlikely. Why? Because everyone else had the same idea. "It used to be, 'My mom threw out my baseball cards,'" says Tracy Hackler, associate publisher for Beckett, the industry's leading price guide. "Well, that's what created the market. Mom throwing out the collection made the ones that weren't thrown out worth something."
Not only have too many cards been saved, but too many are currently being produced. Topps had a virtual monopoly on the baseball card market until 1981, when a court ruling forced MLB to grant licenses to companies including Fleer, Donruss and Upper Deck, flooding the market. Now it's not the 10-year-old buying a pack for the gum inside who's going to get rich, but the serious collector who already has money to invest in rare cards. As Hackler warns, "Trading cards aren't for you if you look at them and see dollar signs and college educations and second homes."