SBJ/Jan. 17-23, 2011/Leagues and Governing Bodies

Optimism joins crowd at MLB owners meetings

Two years ago at these meetings, held in the depths of a recession, MLB Commissioner Bud Selig leaned against a broken automated teller machine and quipped, “Some owner needed money and took all the money out.” It was gallows humor for a set of meetings filled with uncertainty and doubt.

Fast forward to the present. A far more ebullient Selig stood before reporters in virtually the same spot last week and issued perhaps his strongest declaration to date that the league has survived the downturn relatively intact and is now poised to grow strongly along with the rebounding economy.

“I’m definitely optimistic,” Selig said. “Ticket sales are trending very well, and as you know, the last six years have been the best six years we’ve ever had. This will fall right into that [trend] and maybe move up a bit.”

Signs of continued recovery are apparent in a range of places. More than $1 billion in future salary commitments have been extended this past offseason. Even more tellingly, it’s not the New York Yankees and Mets, Chicago Cubs, or Los Angeles Dodgers making the biggest deals of late. It’s representatives of the sport’s middle class, such as Colorado, Washington and the Chicago White Sox.
Bud Selig
AP IMAGES
MLB Commissioner Bud Selig was upbeat at the owners meetings, a stark difference from two years ago.

The league posted record revenue of nearly $7 billion last year, with further increases projected for 2011 due in part to MLB and many teams moving into the back end of media contracts with rights-fee escalators. Many league business units, such as MLB Advanced Media and the MLB Network, posted their own annual revenue records last year. Most of the 30 teams are budgeting for 2011 attendance to be either flat or slightly ahead, as well.

During discussions here, political columnist George Will, a longtime friend and frequent committee member for Selig, outlined to the owners for the third straight year his views on the global economy.

“It was fascinating to hear, and he certainly had the rapt attention of the room,” said Derek Schiller, Atlanta Braves executive vice president of sales and marketing. The Braves are conservatively budgeting to match 2010’s attendance of 2.5 million but in reality will likely exceed that after making a playoff appearance last year. “We’re seeing a lot of positive [economic] trends, and through [the downturn] we learned how well-positioned baseball was and is because of its price point and family orientation.”

• MOBILE SHIFT: It’s no secret in the mobile world that BlackBerry’s relevance is trending down while Apple’s trendline, with the iPhone, continues to shoot up. But Bob Bowman, MLBAM chief executive, outlined the marked shift in baseball terms during his presentation to the owners.

Two years ago, BlackBerry maker Research In Motion Inc. represented half of MLB.com’s mobile traffic; Apple had 14 percent with the iPhone. Now, those marks are 61 percent for the iPhone and 20 percent for BlackBerry devices.

MLBAM holds a particularly strong relationship with Apple. MLB’s digital arm has been featured in several national TV ads for Apple, and live game streaming with the MLB.com At Bat mobile application began with the iPhone. Still, such a seismic shift traditionally takes many years rather than only a few to manifest itself.

MLB.com mobile traffic, which has quadrupled over the last two years, is projected to grow further in 2011 to become more than 40 percent of MLB.com’s overall traffic.

“Our sport is particularly well-suited to mobile, getting that quick update, quick news item, quick check into a game,” Bowman said. “It’s certainly not surprising to see this growing so quickly.”

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