SBJ/November 21-27, 2011/Leagues and Governing Bodies

Realignment will test interleague’s popularity

The historic shift of the Houston Astros to the American League, announced here last week, creates not only MLB’s first realignment since 1998 but also the first major schism in interleague play since its introduction a year earlier.

And, in turn, the realignment, set to begin in 2013, could bring big changes to critical attendance figures that are significantly boosted each year by interleague play.

Despite annual grumbles in baseball circles alleging inequities in interleague scheduling, fans have consistently voted in favor of the format with their feet and wallets. Interleague play over its 15-season lifespan has averaged a 12 percent boost in attendance, with a draw of 33,285 fans a game, compared with intraleague play during the same time. This past season, the relative boost was even greater, reaching 18.2 percent.

Rivalries like Angels-Dodgers boost the interleague gate, but so do scheduling advantages.
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Interleague games have an obvious advantage in drawing fans: Marquee in-state rivalries such as Yankees-Mets, Dodgers-Angels, Indians-Reds, and Cubs-White Sox are all but guaranteed to beat out just about any other matchup in their ballparks.

But other advantages have been built in, as well: The games were generally played in warmer months of May and June when schools across the country let out, and a disproportionate percentage of games were slated for weekends, including big-draw spring holidays such as Memorial Day, Mother’s Day and Father’s Day.

Now many of those scheduling conveniences will be thrown out as the new format of two 15-team leagues will require daily interleague play throughout the season, threatening to dull the novelty. MLB Commissioner Bud Selig last week acknowledged it took a while for him to come around on the concept, in part because of attendance concerns,

“You do worry about the effects, and it won’t be perfect. I don’t think any schedule is ever perfect,” Selig said. “But this will be very good, and maybe we’ll be able to attract even more fans.”

Outgoing Astros owner Drayton McLane, who saw the sale of his team to Jim Crane approved by owners at the meeting, said he remains bullish that the appeal of constant interleague play will hold up, both in Houston and leaguewide.

“There won’t be the concentration we had before with interleague, but I believe the [attendance] lift will still be there,” McLane said.

Matt Kemp is the latest MLB star to sign a nine-figure deal.
Photo by: GETTY IMAGES
RETURN OF THE BIG-DOLLAR DEALS:
A historic run of player contracts worth at least $100 million remains in full force with the anticipated arrival of an eight-year, $160 million pact for Los Angeles Dodgers outfielder Matt Kemp. Kemp’s expected deal, the largest in National League history, will join nine-figure contracts signed earlier this calendar year by Boston first baseman Adrian Gonzalez, Milwaukee outfielder Ryan Braun and New York Yankees pitcher CC Sabathia. The quartet will undoubtedly be joined soon by superstar free agent Albert Pujols, and quite possibly fellow free agents Prince Fielder and Jose Reyes.

Seven nine-figure contracts were signed in 2010, a one-year record for MLB. If the final tally for 2011 again hits seven, the combined two-year total of 14 would match the combined signings of more than $100 million from 2001 through ’09.

General managers who assembled last week in Milwaukee to participate in the owners meetings, as they have for much of the past two years, said the run of big deals remains a clear manifestation of baseball’s overall health.

“The industry is still generally in a strong place,” said Dave Dombrowski, Detroit Tigers president and general manager, referring in part to MLB total 2011 revenue of more than $7 billion. “There are some very good players in the game right now that teams want to lock up. But any team can still afford only so many $20 million [per year] players.”

New York Mets general manager and former MLB executive Sandy Alderson concurred. Currently evaluating what to do regarding Reyes, until now his star shortstop, Alderson said that, despite the historic boom of the past two years, big deals remain more the exception than the rule.

“I would expect these kind of deals will continue to come out, at most, a handful at a time,” he said.

MONITOR’S ASSIGNMENT FINISHED: With a settlement between MLB and Dodgers owner Frank McCourt now in hand, complete with a plan for McCourt to sell the team, the end of the controversial assignment for league-appointed club monitor Tom Schieffer has come.

Schieffer, a former U.S. ambassador and Texas Rangers president, was appointed by Selig in late April, as McCourt’s cash-flow problems mounted. But Schieffer’s presence in Los Angeles was hotly contested almost immediately by McCourt, and Schieffer was ultimately kicked out of Dodger Stadium. Schieffer is now returning home to Texas, uncertain of his next career move, or whether it will even involve sports. He also denied any interest in bidding to buy the team.

“It was a very unique experience,” Schieffer said. “There hasn’t been anything else really like this. But the franchise is on its way back now, and there are big opportunities ahead for the next owner.”

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