Bud Selig’s right hand man and the MLB’s commissioner elect Rob Manfred is, according to the media, going to have an impossible task replacing “the great” Selig, who was “invaluable to baseball” and “grew the game so much”. Selig supporters say his biggest accomplishments are avoiding labor disputes and increasing the game’s revenue. I’m in the opposite camp. Any schmuck could have ran baseball as well as the one that has been in office my whole life. We’ll start with the labor disputes. It’s important to keep in mind that Selig was, in fact, elected commissioner after paranoid owners wanted at all costs to avoid a repeat of the 1992 strike that cancelled the World Series. To his credit, Selig accomplished this, but not before he gave in to players and owners. Whenever he did do something, he did it too late. He let steroids run rampant into the mid 2010s. He’s never added a salary cap. The luxury tax is a joke. Single players like A-Rod made more in a season than the entire Houston Astros. The players’ wish was his command, and they weren’t going to go on strike when all they needed to do was ask.

Oh, Bud. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
Oh, Bud. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Now let’s consider revenue and answer the question, “Did Bud Selig really grow baseball and its revenue?” The “national pastime’s” current position as the second highest revenue-generating sport in America is mainly due to the fact that it had a 10-year head start. Every other league has grown considerably in the last 30 years; Baseball simply hasn’t. It’s like the kid who is 5’10 with a full beard by sixth grade and never grows again. Come high school graduation, everyone still calls him by his nickname of “Too Tall Jones”, with a flash of irony in their eyes. Let me explain: The way leagues create a majority of their revenue is from selling broadcasting rights to television networks. A league with high revenue has a lucrative TV deal, a league with low revenue has a lesser one. If Selig were responsible for the uptick in revenue, then you would imagine he increased the amount brought in by selling broadcasting rights for bloated amounts. Take a closer look, and you’ll soon find that isn’t the case. I went back through all of the major sports’ broadcasting history, found their first new contract negotiated in the 1980’s, and compared the cost of a network to broadcast one season to today’s. Check out the results:

League Year TV network then Cost per season then Cost adjusted for inflation TV network now Cost per season now Percent increase
NFL 1980 CBS $12M $34M CBS $395M 1,061.76%
NBA 1979-1983 USA Network $3.13M $9.05M TNT $366.67M 3,951.6%
NHL 1983 USA Network $8M $23.1M NBC $200M 765.8%
MLB 1984 NBC $70M $202.1M Turner $350M 73.18%
MLS 2007[1] ESPN $8M $9.2M ESPN $90M 878.26%

Even if you combine the MLB’s contracts with Turner, Fox, and ESPN, the percent increase from 1984 comes in at 667.3%, less than every league in the country by nearly 100%. Keeping that in mind, there are three striking facts to conclude from this data:

  1. The MLB has hardly grown from 1980 to today.
  2. The MLB was making far more money than any other league in the 80’s. In fact, the MLB made far more money in 1984 from NBC than every other league made from their TV deals combined.
  3. That differential is closing fast.

tvnumbergraph

Baseball’s advantage wasn’t height but popularity. Now, decked in cap and gown, all its classmates—football, basketball, hockey, soccer—have caught up or passed it. What’s left is the perception of that height. But even baseball’s performance in the biggest of games—the World Series—is steadily slipping and has been for some time now. Ratings were in the high 20s and low 30s in the ‘70s and early ‘80s. Since 2005, ratings have only been above 10 once. Just for comparisons sake, the NFL’s “all-star game”, the Pro Bowl, got an 11.7 this season.

worldseriesratings

“But Joe,” you may be asking. “The MLB still makes more money now then they did when Selig took over. That’s improvement, right?”

Wrong. Unless I’m unaware that Selig is responsible for inventing the computer, iPhone, and iPad and increasing the number of televisions in the United States by 170%, then any growth is due to factors out of Selig’s control. The inflated value of broadcasting rights is an organic progression. A cucumber could have ran the sport and seen the same results before becoming a pickle.

What might be most upsetting is the lost opportunity. There are more marketable stars in the league than ever before; Mike Trout, Yasiel Puig, and Clayton Kershaw all play in Los Angeles alone. Giancarlo Stanton hits home runs out of the steroid era (you can thank Bud for McGwire, Sosa, and Bonds). Justin Verlander and his girlfriend Kate Upton are a tabloid goldmine, plus there’s Jeter’s final hurrah of a season, and David Ortiz trying to go from Boston hero to Boston royalty. Baseball should be raking in money. Networks should be lining up to air the MLB. But Selig hasn’t cashed the check, and why that is as baffling as an R.A. Dickey knuckleball.

Manfred shouldn’t have a hard time replacing Selig, but he’ll have to reverse the damage Bud left in his wake. Selig came into a league with a 10-year head start. Now, Manfred will take office after 15 years lost. He must make the time up. He must be as distant from Bud Selig as possible. Baseball, the sport that refuses to change, must change immediately or else, the sport’s popularity will keep falling and falling and falling and eventually plop into a center fielder’s glove.

What comes then?

Well, you’re out.


[1] The MLS was founded in 1994 but didn’t get its first broadcasting deal until 2007. Prior to that, ESPN paid nothing for the rights but split advertising revenue with the league 50-50. So, their percent increase in broadcasting rights revenue is for the last seven years alone.

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