Baseball strike has business on the run

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The Independent Online
CAMDEN YARDS is arguably one of the biggest economic draws in Maryland or, for that matter, the entire Baltimore-Washington region. This spanking new baseball park, an architectural jewel grafted on to the shell of one of the centuries-old warehouses that symbolise Baltimore's early industrial might, supports much more than just owners and players. On any given game night, when the umpire shouts 'play ball' and pyramids of lights illuminate the action, many thousands are affected. That is why the threat to darken stadiums across the nation in a prolonged strike pitting millionaire owners against their millionaire players is reckoned to be an act of economic devastation.

For example, the New York City Comptroller's Office estimates that for every lost game, the revenue bite is dollars 696,300. Multiply that by the number of ballparks across the country and the costs soar into the serious billions.

Small wonder that the New York Times writes that a real strike will mean 'many are out'. This includes not only sausage vendors, parking attendants and pubs, but also very big advertising and other marketing-oriented companies. Baseball is not called the national pastime for nothing.

For example, John Maciarz, a spokesman for General Motors, said quite emphatically last week: 'We hope that a strike does not happen, and if it does, that it ends quickly.' Why the concern from America's largest car company?

Not only does GM sell a lot of cars via advertising related to baseball but it is also the largest corporate sponsor of the new Baseball Network, a joint venture of ABC-TV, NBC-TV and Major League Baseball, a consortium of team owners. Launched only last month, the network has already sold dollars 130m ( pounds 84m) of commercial time for the remaining few months of the season. The prospect of no more season could doom the venture altogether.

Meanwhile the fans, an estimated 70 million people who attended games last year, are confused and angry. At Camden Yards last Thursday night, despite being drenched by a steady downpour, the fans refused to budge as they locked arms in song and protested against the impending strike by waving banners that read: 'It is really the fans you are hurting, you know.'

So passionate are baseball's devotees that some fans lined up for hours to pay up to dollars 1,000 for a Baltimore Orioles ticket that would normally cost less than dollars 40. After years of national indifference, the romance of the game is definitely back. There are popular public television documentaries on the old Negro League and heroes such as Jackie Robinson, the first to break the colour barrier when baseball was a segregated sport. Articles abound on baseball- related architecture, the fashions it inspired and the kinder, gentler, slower-paced America that the sport reflected.

There is even something special for the statistics fanatics who fantasise about managing their own ball clubs. They have formulated a special side game called Rotisserie Baseball. In this league, anyone can be a manager and it is reliably estimated that about half of the White House staff has joined in. Participants shift and trade players, call critical plays, throw tantrums over rotten calls by the umpire and bet on the odds in company with thousands linked by computer. For these and other devoted fans, America will be a grim place if the stadiums remain dark.

Given the passion, the revenues, the arrival of movie star-quality players such as Ken Griffey, Matt Williams, Jeff Bagwell and Frank Thomas, why all the fuss? Again, we are talking about money, and very big money at that. But the particulars are shrouded in mystery thanks to the monopoly powers bestowed upon baseball by the US Supreme Court. Owners, therefore, are not required to open their books to support hotly disputed profit-and-loss claims.

What isknown are these documented facts: team franchises that sold for dollars 70m to dollars 80m in 1988 are now bringing dollars 150m to dollars 175m, suggesting that owner profits are up; average ticket prices have risen 21 per cent over the last four years but attendance has also risen by 24 per cent, in part due to the addition of two new teams; US cities, facing the real or imagined threat of losing their teams, have contributed hundreds of millions of public dollars in tax breaks and for new stadiums such as Baltimore's Camden Yards.

Meanwhile, player salaries are also escalating. The average salary this season rose to dollars 1.2m, up one-third from four years ago. The minimum allowable salary is now dollars 109,000, which is one of the key issues in the current strike dispute. Players want to raise the minimum to between dollars 175,000 and dollars 200,000, but even more important, they are arguing over when and how a player becomes a free agent.

This is the right of players, after a specified time in the major leagues, to change teams and thus negotiate bigger salaries and bonuses. Owners are trying to limit free agentry by establishing guaranteed maximums. Thus the battle is over a fundamental difference: the owners' desire for a new economic system, and the players' determination to cling to the old.

Devoted fans, meanwhile, remain in the dark. Are the owners actually losing as a group an estimated dollars 100m to dollars 200m a year? Why do average salaries have to go up? Why does TV keep bidding millions for rights to broadcast? Who actually profits from the sport? A little light would be appreciated.