It's about the halfway point of the NBA season, and I've really been enjoying it so far. Will the Suns keep winning games in chunks of 10 and 12? Can the new Iverson/Anthony combo in Denver raise the Nuggets to the level of the Suns, Spurs, and Mavericks? Is any team in the Eastern Conference going to stop fooling around and get serious about seizing a basically free shot to the NBA Finals? Maybe the Bulls will do it with a Pau Gasol trade. Hard to say. Anyway, I love the NBA, but I don't write about it here very much, since the subset of Rockies fans who also follow pro basketball closely seems pretty small. One more comment for the proud few, though. What I'm really waiting for this season is for David Lee to explode in frustration, run up to Isiah Thomas in the middle of the game, and start screaming until his face turns all red: "I'M THE BEST PLAYER ON THE TEAM! START RUNNING PLAYS FOR ME!" That would be awesome. I love the Knicks.
The various pro team sports leagues in the United States have different attitudes when it comes to attracting and retaining new fans. The NFL just doesn't care. Everybody already loves the NFL, so when millions of fans can't get their Thursday night games it's not bad publicity. The whole NFL Network thing, though not fully resolved at the last time I read anything about it, ended up as just another NFL Properties steamrollering. The cable companies learned, as the league and the fans already know, that if you can put the NFL on TV, any day, any time, at any cost, you do it. All of football's TV deals are so long-lasting and gargantuan that whatever few viewers get frustrated with the random regional game distribution, interminable game broadcasts, and almost across-the-board annoying and incompetent broadcasters and tune out are just drops in the ocean. Let a few people go watch golf, or tennis, or whatever movie is on TBS. They're the NFL. They own your soul.
If football is the imperious and untouchable king, hockey and basketball are like hyperactive little princes. They have a lot of ground to make up, but they know it. They change the uniforms. They change the rules. They move teams around as if their franchises were involved in a convoluted game of Where in North America is Carmen Sandiego? Sometimes they look awful silly doing it, but at the very least America's little sibling leagues are trying. They want new fans. They want to convince people who have never seen a puck or (either version of the) NBA basketball to jump on board. In both cases, there's a bit of penitence involved as well. Hockey, obviously, had the horrible labor stoppage and a lost season. The NBA struggles still with the impression that all of its players are crazy overmuscled tattooed thugs who would just as soon shoot your kid in the face than sign his ticket stub. (How this is any different from the crazy overmuscled tattooed thugs in the NFL, many of whom are also on shady prescriptions that boost their muscle mass and further reduce their capacity for rational thought, is a mystery to me. Maybe the NBA needs to make everybody wear helmets.) So whether it's the shootout or the dress code, the younger leagues are trying. That's mostly admirable, but sometimes you see disconnects from reality. Like, the NBA has a lot of young black guys who like rap music. That's not going to change. And the NHL is just always going to have a lot of Canadians in it, no matter how unsavory that may prove to more civilized southern folk. You can change what you emphasize in marketing your game, but you can't change the underlying reality. The NBA's once-revered Commissioner Stern has had a tough time this year coming to grips with this.
Then there's baseball, the middle sibling. MLB is far more woven into the fabric of American life than any other team sport, and it has a stubborn resonance which doesn't show up in those ever-sagging television ratings. A lot of Americans go to baseball games every year as some sort of ritual or chore. In the summer, it's one of those things you do. In Denver, I would say something like 70-80% of the audience of the average midweek Coors crowd for a game against Arizona or Pittsburgh or somebody is tourists with no lasting interest in the team or the league. Which is fine. I mean, they paid their money, they have every right to the seats. MLB doesn't do very much with this built-in advantage, however. I don't think very many people go to pro hockey or basketball games on a whim the way people go to baseball games. But MLB for as long as I've been a fan at least has been weirdly pokey about trying to convert these casual viewers into more regular customers. The NFL, of course, just doesn't care, since it's already reached critical mass in this country. If you don't understand a ruling in a football game there's got to be someone you can call. (Also, part of the game's charm I suppose is that very often the officials seem to be improvising the rules as they go along. Go, tuck rule!) Hockey and basketball by contrast try to design an experience that will at once not agitate the purist fan and hopefully teach the newcomers a thing or two about the rules and the players.
This is where baseball is weird. Real baseball fans, like football fans, believe strongly that the truth of the superiority of their game is self-evident. Hardcore seamheads, however, don't have the numbers to back up our dogma. Baseball markets itself too often as if it were the NFL...inevitable, immovable, implacable. If something about the game doesn't appeal to you, too bad, because there are untold millions of guys in replica Michael Strahan jerseys who will tell you in no uncertain terms why you're wrong and also in all likelihood an idiot.
That's what MLB's soon-to-be-announced exclusive deal with DirecTV to carry its out-of-market Extra Innings package for 2007 and the better part of a decade after that smells like. It's MLB trying to pull an NFL move, and they're going to be sorely disappointed with the results. I mean, it doesn't take a genius to figure out that pro baseball and pro football have two hugely different business models working. NFL teams have eight regular-season home games, MLB teams have 81. Pro football teams have a massive and hugely capitalized talent development system that from their perspective operates completely free of charge; major league baseball franchises have to assemble, organize, staff, and finance their own feeder clubs. But the biggest difference is the most obvious. The 32 NFL teams receive the vast majority of their incomes from national broadcast revenues and other bulk payments that are evenly divided among the New York teams and the Bills and Packers alike. The 30 major league baseball teams get an even larger percentage of their revenues from local sources (radio and television, ticket sales) which are mostly not redistributed equally among small and large franchises.
Baseball's dearly-held status as the national game wore away in the 70's and 80's as an ever-increasing number of media outlets provided greater and greater amounts of competition. What was once the game's chief strength has become a huge weakness in the digital cable era. Being a true baseball fan is a year-round experience. You think about your team and its competition every day, April, October, or January. During the long season there are games every single day. Baseball has a subtle and elegant pulse. Every night you watch the local nine, then you check the box scores the next morning. During the day at work, you breeze around on the web looking for trade rumors. Being a baseball fan is like a lifestyle choice. The NFL doesn't have a pulse, it has a thud. Go do whatever you want six days a week, pay attention or don't, just make sure you set aside your entire Sunday (and plenty of fried snacks) to watch FOOTBALL!!! The guys on the pregame shows will tell you everything you need to know, but what do you need, really? It's FOOTBALL!!! Dudes hittin' each other! Yeah! Did we mention every element of each game's presentation is carefully managed to facilitate easy and frequent gambling? Fried snacks! Gambling! Again, dudes hittin' each other! FOOTBALL!!!
But hang on a second. Sure, maybe I write with barely contained bitterness. They wouldn't let me play football in junior high, see. (Probably for the best since in sixth grade I maybe weighed 70 pounds.) I love baseball, I enjoy watching pretty much any baseball game no matter how trivial over whatever football you have to offer, NFL, NCAA, or CFL. I believe to the very core of my soul that baseball is inherently better than football, that Ted Williams, Joe DiMaggio, and Bob Gibson are better than any great football players you might care to mention. Branch Rickey was obviously smarter than Bill Walsh, and Earl Weaver has it all over Bill Belichick. Are these silly things to believe? Well, I don't know, some people think there is only one god that comes in three flavors and likes to occasionally etch little self-portraits into tortillas. The thing is though, some of the very things that make me like baseball so much better than football are the very causes for the NFL's present ascendency. And while you can't radically change the game to the point where it could realistically copy football's model for success, there are certainly ideas that you can steal.
The most important basic concept for which baseball ought to look to the NFL for guidance is nationalizing the best teams. NFL fans in Chicago and Seattle and Tampa and Fiji alike want to see the Colts and Patriots play, because those teams are both good and familiar. I'm not suggesting that folks in Kansas City should all become Yankees fans; that's odious. The last thing we need is more small-market fans abandoning their home teams. However, when the playoffs roll around it's a terrible thing that fans in Boston and New York are completely ignorant as to what their potential competition in Oakland and/or Anaheim might have up their sleeves. MLB and its partners at Fox and ESPN (who clearly hate all sports) have taken the most short-sighted approach imaginable to making up their national TV schedules the past several years. Rather than trying to build a truly national audience, they simply cherry-pick the best regional matchups (Cubs-Cardinals, Dodgers-Giants, and obviously Red Sox-Yankees) and cause all of the fans of the teams involved who were going to watch the game anyway to just switch over from their local affiliate (or their Extra Innings subscription) to the network. This doesn't bring in new fans, and it mostly irritates established ones, since radical lobotomy surgery is an apparent required precondition to do color commentary or play-by-play for a nationally broadcast baseball game.
Restricting the Extra Innings package to DirecTV is the exact opposite course from what MLB should be considering to build its brand for the future. For the vast majority of people who will watch a baseball game on TV in 2007, it will be the familiar local broadcast team on the regional Fox Sports Whatever channel. Many more will see ESPN and Fox's watered-down, condescending national and playoff coverage. How can they imagine what they're missing? Exactly what's great about baseball is what football doesn't have...hundreds of games that will be seen by few, remembered by fewer, and completely free of any larger significance whatsoever. Games whose existence is justified by nothing more than the marvelous, surreal spectacle of two groups of grown men in matching outfits gathering to stab at thrown balls and then run furiously counterclockwise. All this while another smaller and older group of men looks on longingly from the TV booth and rambles apocryphally and semi-coherently about how much fleeter they proceeded counterclockwise back in their day. I love this stuff!
I hate to say it, but I think I just convinced myself that I need to get the dish. I hate DirecTV and its monopolizing business strategies, and I'm very angry at MLB for basically taking a huge cash payment to get its most rabid, loyal prolific sources of business to bend over and take it in the most infamous of orifices. (As a practical concern, I also have these enormous honking mountains right in my backyard that I expect might affect my reception somewhat.) But I don't know how I'd make it through a whole year without the relentlessly optimistic Royals TV guys, the self-consciously useless Devil Rays broadcast team, Bob Brenly's shameless campaigning for another managerial job, Rex Hudler's cheerful airheadedness, and the Braves loading an entire seven-man crew with direct male descendents of Harry Caray's. By the various gods, a year without Jerry Remy!
While on the whole the public response to the deal (which, in the spirit of full disclosure, hasn't been officially announced yet) has been uncommonly coherent and unanimous for the blogosphere, there isn't any way in the world that all of us yahoos screaming in the wilderness will change MLB's mind. No bloggers are writing the league a $700 million check. (Thus far. Mr. Cuban? Mr. Cuban?) To me a pro sports league accepting a cash payment in exchange for which it ensures its product will be seen and enjoyed by fewer people is as unAmerican as it comes. But see, I'm still pretending I live in the United States where baseball is the national game. It's a football nation now, and the way that the NFL does business is the way that America does business. I mean, I still like baseball better and everything, but facts is facts. The NFL is so monolithic that it makes its own rules. Unfortunately, Major League Baseball (and our government) aspire to the same standing.