SBJ/June 19 - 25, 2000/Marketingsponsorship

Relocation might be the answer; apathy, not disparity, is the problem

The notion of tradition may be one of Major League Baseball's most marketable assets, but it has become a major roadblock to the sport's viability and is weakening the image of the game.

The rich tradition of the sport has kept fans involved during the turbulent past decade. The same tradition, however, has supported the league's rigid stance on franchise relocation. As the league is proud to point out, it has been 28 years since the Washington Senators moved to Texas, the last MLB franchise to relocate.

Therefore, it's good to see that MLB Commissioner Bud Selig appears to have softened his position on relocation. In a recent interview with the Washington Times, Selig said franchise relocation might be the only solution to reducing the revenue differences among clubs, a problem he cites as the biggest one facing baseball.

Now, there's no reason to argue over the biggest problem facing baseball. There are enough problems to go around, so everyone can choose his own. In this case, however, Selig has the right solution (relocation) but, to some extent, the wrong problem.

What really should concern MLB executives is the lack of fan support in some markets. It's not revenue disparity or the absence of a sparkling new stadium that keeps fans from buying tickets in these markets. Rather, it's chronically weak support from markets that no longer appear to be viable locations for MLB teams. And when fan support starts to wane, sponsor interest soon begins to erode. A stadium full of empty seats doesn't do much for sponsors, advertisers and the image of the game.

In Miami, the Florida Marlins haven't proved to be a reliable draw, even during their World Series championship year in 1997. Attendance for the Marlins this year is down 14 percent compared to last year. Oakland, despite some good young players and a competitive team, hasn't received strong fan support in years. It's the same story in Minneapolis (down 21 percent), Tampa (down 12 percent) and Montreal (up 48 percent, but averaging only about 14,000).

There should be no shame for MLB in relocation if a team isn't being supported. Why continue, for the sake of tradition only, to have a team in a market where a good crowd is considered anything in the mid-teens? The market is speaking, and it is clearly saying, "We're not interested in baseball."

This is a situation entirely different from when a team with strong fan and sponsor support is relocated, like the original Cleveland Browns or the rumored move of the Phoenix Coyotes to Portland. Few reasons beyond an owner's avarice can justify these moves. But plenty of unsold seats offer solid testimony to support the relocation of a weak franchise.

Moving to a market with potentially better fan support won't end the revenue-disparity dilemma. That's still a problem for MLB to solve with tools greater than the current bandage approach. Baseball will eventually die in markets where fans admit during spring training that their team stands no chance of competing.

If relocation of franchises is the answer, there need to be viable markets looking to attract a team. Besides Washington, the list is short and doesn't contain any untapped markets with obvious potential like Denver and Phoenix. Still, it's a good sign that MLB recognizes that even an enhanced revenue-sharing plan isn't the panacea for all of MLB's woes. It will take the relocation and perhaps even the elimination of several franchises to make the sport stronger.

Alan Friedman (alanf100@excite.com) is the founder of Team Marketing Report.

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