The annual rite known as Opening Day is supposed to be the one time of year when optimism pervades Major League Baseball.
The sun is out, the slates are clean and even Boston Red Sox fans can find reasons to believe their suffering may finally end.
But this year, even as the National League welcomes the expansion Florida Marlins and Colorado Rockies to the fold, even as the Toronto Blue Jays hoist the first championship banner outside the U.S., even as Bill Clinton throws out the first ball for the Baltimore Orioles and Hillary does the same for the Chicago Cubs, the national pastime's big day takes place under ominous clouds. Baseball is in crisis.
There's the matter of attendance, which last year dipped below 1991 levels in the American League and retreated below 1990 levels in the National. There's the lingering Marge Schott affair and the threat of a race-based, Jesse Jackson-led boycott. There are potentially explosive labor issues, warring factions of owners and a leadership void caused by last year's ouster of commissioner Fay Vincent. But perhaps most important, there are low television ratings, lost marketing clout, disenchanted advertisers and expiring TV contracts.
'I'm simply telling my clients to avoid baseball,' says Bill Croasdale, who as president of network broadcasts at Western International Media advises such advertisers as Disney and Gatorade. 'There's just little advertising value in the sport. The problem is baseball has done absolutely nothing to appeal to advertisers' key target, the 18-to-49-year-olds. Plus, the prices are too high and there is no cooperation - only an arrogance, as if the game still had the magic of Mantle and Mays.'
If the game has already lost its magic, it stands to lose much more after this season. Major League Baseball is in the fourth and final year of its $1-billion television rights contract with CBS and its $400-million pact with ESPN, and players on both sides say new deals will be negotiated for substantially less money.
One high-ranking CBS ad exec predicts a 50% cut in the value of the next agreement. 'I have very little hope for baseball,' the exec says. 'It's like a drug addict who hasn't hit bottom yet. Advertisers see NCAA basketball, the NBA, even tennis rising in attractiveness. But baseball, with its glut of televised games, is on a big downswing. Really, two years ago, we wrote baseball off as a disaster.'
Ratings for CBS' All-Star Game telecasts, for example, plummeted from 18.5 in 1990 to 14.9 last season, while the network's regular-season numbers fell from 4.7 to 3.4. Average ratings for ESPN slipped from 2.1 to 1.5 over the same period, and the cable network has refused to exercise its option to televise two additional seasons under the current contract.
As a result of the impending cut in television revenue, baseball's economic future is uncertain. One observer contends the game stands to take a 'major financial hit that could threaten its very integrity.' The CBS package alone meant $38.5 million for each club, money that could be the difference between profits and mere survival for some teams.
Baseball is also plagued by non-economic issues, such as free agency, waning fan loyalty and the role of superstations TBS and WGN (the Tribune Company has local TV rights for one-fourth of the 28 clubs). 'There's no coherence in baseball, no vision, just diverse interests and an ever-widening gulf between the haves and the have-nots,' says San Francisco Giants senior vp Pat Gallagher. 'The fans just don't understand why players are making such incredible money, the competing interests of small and large media markets, or the game's many other economic conflicts. Because of all this, the fans have become alienated.'
Especially damaging to baseball's marketing is the long-raging hostility between players and management. Instead of magnifying player personalities (along the lines of the NBA), baseball owners try to diminish a player's stature to limit salary demand (unlike the NBA, there is no 'partnership' for sharing revenues and no salary cap). Indeed, major leaguers are rarely featured in national ad campaigns. Texas Rangers pitcher Nolan Ryan, who is retiring at the end of the season, is an exception. Enigmatic young stars, like unpromoted and unpopular outfielders Barry Bonds of the Giants and Jose Canseco of the Rangers, are the rule.
'There's been an institutional dread in promoting the players,' admits Rick White, the president of Major League Baseball Properties. He calls the situation a 'classic tension' that handicaps marketing and has thrown the baseball industry into 'a malaise.'
Yet White heralds a new 'collegial spirit' among club owners - the same group that has been unable to agree on the designated-hitter rule. 'Ownership for the first time in decades is looking to establish a constructive partnership with the players,' he says. 'Now there's a new collective concern for marketing issues. Sure, I'd have a great deal of concern if I was in the advertising community, but when faced with prospective disaster, the leagues will make significant changes.'
There is talk of taking action to quicken the pace of games and of improving the quality of TV production values, especially as they relate to an increased focus on star players. Baseball is also considering another tier of playoffs, realignment of each league into three divisions and interleague play.
White says several committees, including a marketing group, have been formed to examine the problems. 'The emotional factor of baseball is unparalleled,' he says. 'We've also been able to bring on five new sponsors, companies like Russell Athletics and Mayflower Moving, and that's because the game's excitement is incredible.'
It's not incredible enough to keep some longtime advertisers from reconsidering their spending. In 1988, Anheuser-Busch's ad budget for baseball was $100 million. For 1993, it will be $75 million. Among the reasons the brewer cites for the cutback are the game's lack of leadership and its failure to develop a cohesive plan for the future.
USA Today is another advertiser waiting for baseball to put its house in order. After severing official sponsor ties for the 1993 All-Star Game, the paper's publisher and president, Tom Curley, recently renewed sponsorship on a limited basis. Yet Curley still says 'the league has so many issues on its plate that sponsorship concerns haven't been a priority. Marketing-wise, there's been no broad perspective, so sadly, the price value of baseball is just not there.'
Ed Kiersh is a freelance writer based in New York.
Copyright Adweek L.P. (1993)