SBJ/Oct. 7-13, 2013/Opinion

MLB season’s surprising highs and puzzling lows

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As MLB heads into its postseason, here are the story lines, teams and people that stood out to me this season:
 
> BIGGEST STORY: LOS ANGELES DODGERS: Yes, they are the biggest story in back-to-back years. No team has been in the news throughout the season more than the Dodgers. In January, there was the 25-year deal with Time Warner Cable valued at $8 billion that will lead to the creation of SportsNet LA by American Media Productions, a subsidiary of the team. That mammoth deal will have deep ramifications on the local media rights landscape. In April, the team lifted the curtain on a $100 million renovation that was done under the guide of Janet Marie Smith. And while they were 23-32 on June 2 and in turmoil, management stayed the course and the team finished 92-70, is a postseason favorite, was up nearly 13 percent in attendance (leading the league) and looks to be a long-term contender. What I also liked is the aggressive nature of ownership. It was in the mix on a number of off-field efforts, including its first soccer game as part of the Guinness International Champions Cup, and it linked up for next year’s NHL Stadium Series as Dodger Stadium became the new celebrity hot spot and place to be seen. The Los Angeles Times, which shed no tears on the departure of the McCourts but is not easy on any ownership, wrote last week the Dodgers “have again become the Dodgers, a team that owned this city even through the Showtime era” and has a “rich unified ownership group that has listened to fans.”

> BIGGEST SURPRISE: PITTSBURGH PIRATES: It’s easy to feel good about the feel-good story of the year for a team that is seeing its first playoff berth in 21 years. Longtime Pittsburgh sports columnist Ron Cook wrote, “I never thought it possible.” This season has been an all-around hit for the team that plays in one of MLB’s best ballparks. On the field, the talent came together sooner than expected, and the off-the-field business metrics followed: The team had its second-highest attendance since PNC Park opened in 2001; local TV ratings were up 22 percent and ranked third; and, yes, I actually saw someone wearing a licensed Pirates T-shirt at Mass last week in my home of Charlotte. That was a first, for sure, and proof the team is making strides.

> BEST MOMENTS: MLB’S FAREWELL TOURS: Even a Red Sox fan couldn’t get enough of the final season of Mariano Rivera, who truly embodies what’s right about sports and society. His last game as a Yankee last month reminded me again how few leagues say goodbye to its legends like MLB. Rivera’s spine-tingling exit came just days after the Colorado Rockies’ farewell to the classy Todd Helton and showed again the lasting bond players who remain with their parent team can make on a city and region. Don’t cry for MLB. The league continues to build up a bevy of young, marketable players. Just look at jersey sales this year. Rivera’s jersey was the biggest seller, but he was followed by young stars like Matt Harvey, Yasiel Puig and Manny Machado.

> MOST DISAPPOINTING CITY: CHICAGO: The state of baseball in Chicago is disappointing. On the field, the Cubs are still awaiting the results of Theo Epstein’s team-building, and after three consecutive 90-loss seasons, you wonder how much longer the faithful will follow. Remember, in Boston, Epstein inherited a much stronger team and got immediate results, but it’s obvious the locals are getting frustrated as the Cubs have suffered their fifth consecutive year of declining attendance. Their gate is down roughly 20 percent from a team-record 3,300,200 in 2008 and is at the lowest level since 1998. All this comes amid Tom Ricketts’ ambitious but stalled $500 million plan to renovate Wrigley and the surrounding area. Things aren’t any better on the South Side, where the last-place White Sox have seen a 9 percent drop at the gate and now rank 24th out of MLB’s 30 teams. More bad news for both clubs: Their combined futility comes at a time when the Stanley Cup-winning Blackhawks, the resurgent Bears, and the return of Derrick Rose to the Bulls dominate the headlines.

> MOST DISAPPOINTING, PART II: TAMPA ATTENDANCE: I have no idea what the Houston Astros are doing under Jim Crane, so I’ll push that mess aside. But I don’t know what Stuart Sternberg and Matt Silverman can do to turn this attendance around because to be last in the league this year despite six consecutive winning seasons must be beyond frustrating. If it’s not market driven, it’s building driven. And with no traction on a new ballpark, there’s little hope for any immediate turnaround. I really wonder how long this can go on.

> BIGGEST TURNOVER, PART I: NEW YORK OUT OF PLAYOFFS: MLB and its TV partners are understandably disappointed not having the New York market in the playoffs for just the second time in the last 19 seasons. The long-term concern for the league and its partners is that they could face some tough days over the next few years in New York, Philadelphia and Chicago (see above). That hurts a sport that is so dependent on major market teams. While other big spenders, like the Dodgers, Red Sox and Tigers, still are playing, it was great to see competitive balance in the league. MLB was reborn in traditional baseball markets like Pittsburgh and Kansas City, while Cincinnati had another strong year, and Tampa and Baltimore continued to win in the AL East. It’s way too early to suggest that we’re seeing a changing of the guard, but while MLB needs its major markets, this bodes well for the long-term health of the entire league.

> BIGGEST TURNOVER, PART II: TEAM EXECUTIVES: I can’t recall a season when there was such turnover at the senior level. Go through the list — Wally Hayward (Cubs), Andy Feffer (Nationals), Doug Duennes (Orioles), Vic Gregovits (Indians), Rick George (Rangers), Dave Howard (Mets), Tom Garfinkel (Padres) and George Postolos (Astros). I don’t see a trend here — some found better comfort zones, others moved on or were moved out — but it represented the most turnover I can remember in-season.

> BIGGEST TURNAROUND: BOSTON RED SOX: Last year, they were the biggest flop. What a difference in just 12 months. Leadership returned to the recipe that served them well for so long. Frankly, if you look at this column last year (Oct. 8-14, 2012, issue), they did what was suggested. They focused on players who could play and perform under the pressure of that market and collected likable, hardworking talent that played together. They stopped obsessing, at least publicly, over attendance and ratings and let the play on the field bring fans back. Yes, general manager Ben Cherington got lucky as all his bets hit. While the team was in first place all season, it has taken the locals right up into September to truly embrace this squad, as they sensed a fold, and the hard feelings of 2011 and 2012 remained. But overall, the team and its business side seemed to find their way again. Remember, winning cures a lot.

> BIGGEST QUESTION ON HOW TO MARKET A PLAYER: MILWAUKEE BREWERS/RYAN BRAUN: What are owner Mark Attanasio and COO Rick Schlesinger thinking in terms of how to market around Ryan Braun. The team finished 74-88 but still drew 2.5 million fans. The disgraced Braun had been the face of a franchise and is now calling season-ticket holders to apologize for his connection to the Biogenesis case. The team had developed much of its marketing around him, he is under contract through 2020 but his favorability ratings have dropped significantly in the state. So how do you promote around a talent who, as many noted, revealed himself to be a serial liar?

> BIGGEST STORY GOING FORWARD: SELIG’S SUCCESSOR: Without question, the executive reshuffling at MLB as it searches for the successor to Bud Selig will be notable. Unlike the recent changes at the NFL and NBA, where there was one clear executive next in line, that’s not the case with MLB. There are a number of extremely talented executives within MLB and MLBAM, as well as at the team level, all likely jockeying for position. And think of interest from outside the sport. This will be fun to watch.

Abraham D. Madkour can be reached at amadkour@sportsbusinessjournal.com.

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