SBJ/April 4-10, 2011/In Depth

What to watch in 2011?

The economy is in better shape than last year, and even more so relative to 2009. Competitive balance in baseball stands at historically high levels. And optimism within the game is strong compared to many other sports, particularly football and basketball. But MLB is still approaching significant crossroads on a number of key issues.

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The media had plenty of questions for Mets owner Fred Wilpon at spring training.
SHEA, BUDDY, CAN YOU SPARE A DIME?


The New York Mets, entering their third season in Citi Field and playing in the nation’s largest media market, should be one of the sport’s financial bedrocks. Instead, the club’s ugly entanglement in the Bernie Madoff financial scandal has surrounded it in debt, legal headaches and uncertainty, with the situation growing so grim as to necessitate an emergency loan from MLB late last year. Owner Fred Wilpon and his partners are seeking to sell a minority stake in the club, but even if that process is successful, it’s unclear whether that will redirect the Mets back toward solid profitability. Ticket sales, club officials say, are actually up slightly compared to a year ago, but the turnstile count, the team’s win-loss record, and its courtroom standing in a Madoff clawback lawsuit will all be closely watched.

BLACK AND DODGER BLUE

A year ago, industry executives and Los Angeles Dodgers fans alike were bracing for tough times as Dodgers owner Frank McCourt and now ex-wife Jamie escalated their divorce proceedings. But the reality has even been worse, as divorce filings revealed that the club took on more than $400 million in debt and the McCourts lived a high-cost personal lifestyle in part on the backs of that Dodgers debt. The former couple’s legal battle for the club continues, and the ultimate status of the Dodgers ownership stands unresolved. Several recent attempts by Frank McCourt to shore up club finances, including a $200 million loan from television partner Fox, have been denied.

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TURNSTILE TURNAROUND


Strong signs are afoot that MLB’s three-year attendance slide, a drop heavily precipitated by the economic recession, will end in 2011 with league and many team executives planning for increases. But the always-critical attendance numbers are now taking on even greater importance. Far beyond a mere year-to-year review, MLB Commissioner Bud Selig is now overseeing a bigger process to cross the once-unfathomable 80 million threshold at some point, and more generally, create deeper fan roots through the in-stadium experience. The commissioner over the winter formed a new task force to look at baseball’s ticketing landscape and push best-practices sharing into new directions.

THE WAITING IS THE HARDEST PART

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The A’s are hoping for some sign of progress in efforts to move to a new home.
MLB Commissioner Bud Selig has a long-earned reputation of being deliberate, and that cautiousness has paid big dividends in many prior instances. But the ongoing deliberation on the future of the Oakland A’s, in part through a hand-picked committee studying stadium operations for the beleaguered club, has become something of a running joke in the industry. Now entering its third year of study on the issue, the committee has yet to conclude its work, and the basic dynamic remains the same as it’s ever been: A’s owner Lew Wolff wants to move the team to San Jose, a shift that is opposed by the San Francisco Giants, holders of the territorial rights over the Silicon Valley hub. But impatience is rising in many corners. And with each passing year without resolution, the risk grows that the 75-year-old Wolff, a former fraternity brother of Selig’s, will suffer the same fate of late Minnesota Twins owner Carl Pohlad, who died without seeing the new ballpark he fought for years to get.

RAISING ARIZONA IRE

The 2011 All-Star Game will be played at Phoenix’s Chase Field, representing an important benchmark for a host Diamondbacks club that has undergone a turbulent ride both competitively and financially in recent years. But the game will also be played against a backdrop of debate over immigration policy. Arizona last year passed sweeping legislation on immigration, and elements of that law are now ensnared in legal challenges. Arizona more recently has rebuffed other potential anti-immigration measures as officials have begun to understand the big drop-off in business and tourism that its aggressive political stance created. But MLB last year faced and rebuffed many calls to move the Midsummer Classic out of the state, as the game became a prominent lightning rod on the immigration debate. Still, more protests around All-Star events are a near-certainty this summer. In the meantime, the business of the All-Star Game itself is in need of some revival, as ticket demand in Anaheim last year was noticeably softer.

HISTORY FOR SELIG?

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As most around the industry know, MLB Commissioner Bud Selig’s current, three-year contract expires Dec. 31, 2012, and Selig has spoken often of a desire to retire then, teach history at the University of Wisconsin, and write a memoir. But Selig twice before has announced retirement plans only to sign an extension, prompting many close allies, including his wife, Sue, to disbelieve the current round of talk. Either way, what happens with regard to the second-longest and by far most influential baseball commissionership ever bears close watching. Selig has yet to designate a potential successor, and tapping an internal candidate could upset the balance of his newly reconstituted executive team.

NO MINOR ISSUE

O'Conner
MLB Commissioner Bud Selig isn’t the only senior baseball executive evaluating major career decisions. Minor League Baseball President Pat O’Conner is in the final year of his initial four-year term, and needs to inform MiLB’s board of directors by May 31 whether he intends to seek a second term. But at present, O’Conner is undecided. Over his first three years, O’Conner has overseen a large set of sweeping industry changes, including the creation of the online holding company Baseball Internet Rights Co., a new six-year extension through 2020 to the master Professional Baseball Agreement with MLB, realignment of two Class A leagues, heightened involvement in charitable endeavors, and establishment of new attendance records. But for all the modernization, minor league baseball remains something of a provincial affair in which market disparities can be difficult to manage. “There are things I still want to sort through and I need to do a little personal inventory,” O’Conner said. “This is a great job, but it’s also a very demanding job, and I won’t do it halfway.”

— Compiled by Eric Fisher



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