SBJ/20100329/SBJ In-Depth

MLB at the plate: What to watch in 2010

Major League Baseball opens the 2010 season in a more stable place than a year ago, thanks in significant part to an improved economy, and certainly compared with several other leagues battling fractious labor divides. But several pressing issues remain that will help define the year and influence the health of the sport.

Dodgers owner Frank McCourt continues to battle against estranged wife Jamie for control of the club, with divorce legal proceedings expected later this year. Dodgers officials have steadfastly denied the saga is having any effect on club operations, but many fans are not convinced. Team payroll is down from last year by roughly $10 million, the club’s second consecutive decline in player spending despite club attendance and other key local revenue sources remaining among the strongest in the game. And a recent court filing by Jamie McCourt, showing club financial plans developed last year for a potential international partnership, suggested no material boosts in planned player spending for the next eight years, even as club revenue is projected to soar.

Overall league attendance slid 6.65 percent last year to 73.42 million, MLB’s lowest total since 2004 and second straight annual decline. Baseball still claims attendance as its single-largest revenue source, and its total gate is more than any other sport, so the turnstile metric is closely watched. Commissioner Bud Selig predicted an attendance rebound this season, and ticket sales thus far strongly suggest he’ll be proved correct, with most teams trending at least flat to slightly above last year’s sales paces. On top of healthier national economic indicators, teams continue to aggressively pursue discount offers, dynamic and variable pricing structures, new sales analytics, retooled giveaways and theme nights to boost ticket sales.

Outdoor baseball is back in Minnesota after a 28-year absence with the opening of Target Field in downtown Minneapolis. The intimate, 39,504-seat ballpark has drawn rave reviews for its artful blending into the downtown urban landscape while still offering plenty of nods to the club’s history and baseball’s pastoral roots. Concern, however, remains as to how many games will either be postponed or just miserable for fans and players alike due to cold and inclement weather in the early spring and fall. But such worries may also be overblown — other Northern and cold-weather cities such as Detroit, Chicago, Cleveland, Boston, New York, Philadelphia and Denver have battled their own weather issues in outdoor ballparks and survived.

The Tampa Bay Rays were not able last year to repeat their unexpected and unprecedented success of 2008. But the culture of the organization has been radically transformed into one that now expects success, and its front office and roster talent can back up those expectations. That seismic shift, however, has not translated into a meaningful bump in ticket sales or solid progress on a new facility to replace Tropicana Field. Everyone involved in the process — MLB, the club itself, and a community coalition that has studied the issue in depth — agrees that the Rays cannot stay viable in their present location. But any solid site or financing plan for a new ballpark remains elusive.

MLB might have been quiet on emerging 3-D
technology, but the league is starting to take
a closer look.

Baseball, up until earlier this year, had been noticeably quiet on the quickly developing 3-D front, but Fox, DirecTV and MLB are developing a 3-D production for July’s All-Star Game in Anaheim, Calif., and ESPN similarly plans its own 3-D production of the Home Run Derby. Hopes are high that 3-D can heighten the immersiveness of televised baseball, in part by showing more fully the break and speed of pitches. But similar to golf, baseball faces the challenge of each facility having different dimensions, making it more difficult to standardize any technical and operating procedures for producing baseball in 3-D. A heightened 3-D strategy, however, is likely for the playoffs in the fall, and the All-Star Game 3-D plans will add to a sharply expanded community and charitable focus for the midseason event.

MLBAM has a variety of content
planned for the new iPad.

Apple’s highly touted iPad will be released Saturday, and MLB Advanced Media will play a big part in the device’s launch period, just as baseball’s digital arm helped define the full potential of the iPhone and became a leader in paid video content subscriptions. MLBAM’s content on the new tablet device, featuring a 9.7-inch touch screen, will include an array of live video and audio content, statistics, news and fantasy data. The flagship MLB.TV out-of-game subscription has been retooled to allow for full portability between any wired or wireless device, including the iPad. MLBAM holds a tight relationship with Apple, and other sports properties and media entities will be closely watching as they develop their own iPad strategies.

A long-desired plan to build a new ballpark for the Oakland A’s in Fremont, Calif., fizzled in the face of several issues, chief among them community opposition. A’s owner Lew Wolff is now seeking to shift the club farther south to San Jose, a move that would align his dreams for a high-tech ballpark with a key hub of Silicon Valley. But the San Francisco Giants retain territorial rights over San Jose, and have no intention to forfeit them. A task force appointed by MLB Commissioner Bud Selig is now studying the A’s stadium issue. It’s widely expected that Selig will need to broker a settlement between the A’s and Giants that would resemble the early 2005 agreement between the league and Baltimore to help settle the Expos’ relocation to Washington and creation of the Mid-Atlantic Sports Network.

The Texas Rangers are bogged down by an ownership and debt battle that has overshadowed the on-field progress the club has made over the past year. Owner Tom Hicks in January struck a deal to sell the club to a group led by Chuck Greenberg. But Hicks, who defaulted on $525 million in debt connected to his sports holdings, has been unable to come to terms with his creditors on the Rangers sale, and a projected Thursday closing stands in considerable doubt. If and when a deal gets done, plenty of issues remain. Rangers Ballpark needs key upgrades and renovations, vice presidents Andy Silverman and Dale Petroskey recently left the organization and will need to be replaced, and manager Ron Washington, who stunned the club with his admission of cocaine use, is in the final year of his contract.

Mike Weiner

Mike Weiner’s impact and management style were felt almost immediately in the offseason as he took over as executive director of the MLB Players Association. Within weeks of his official arrival, the union struck a deal with the Florida Marlins and MLB to have the club boost its payroll while the new Miami ballpark is built. The deal was deeply significant on several fronts, in part addressing long-held complaints in several corners of the game that revenue-sharing recipients were not sufficiently boosting their payrolls, while also arriving with no public acrimony. The pact showed that, like predecessors Donald Fehr and Marvin Miller, Weiner will be an indefatigable advocate for the players, even if his personal style might appear more mellow.

— Compiled by Eric Fisher

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