Baseball: Go west to see the best
As the new season begins, there has been a power shift from the East Coast, with TV deals, star names and big bucks going to LA
Known for his commentary on international relations and US politics, Rupert Cornwell also contributes obituaries and occasionally even a column for the sports pages. With The Independent since its launch in 1986, he was the paper's first Moscow correspondent - covering the collapse of the Soviet Union – during which time he won two British Press Awards. Previously a foreign correspondent for the Financial Times and Reuters, he has also been a diplomatic correspondent, leader writer and columnist, and has served as Washington bureau editor. In 1983 he published God's Banker, about Roberto Calvi, the Italian banker found hanging from Blackfriars Bridge.
Friday 06 April 2012
It remains New York baseball's blackest memory – the autumn of 1957 when the Dodgers and the Giants left town and headed to California. This week a new baseball season has opened and another baseball power shift from the East Coast to the West is on the cards. And although half a century has passed, the reason is the same: money.
New York, needless to say, survived the original departures. A replacement team, the Mets, opened for business in 1962, and for the last decade, the sport's financial epicentre has been in the country's North East. The Boston Red Sox, the Philadelphia Phillies and the mighty Yankees vacuumed up virtually every top player who came on the market. The trio had the biggest payrolls, the biggest stars and constant success, including four World Series titles between 2004 and 2009. But this mini-golden age may be over. Right now, baseball's biggest bucks are out West.
Any doubts on that score were banished on 10 December last year, when Albert Pujols, the pick of the 2011 free-agent crop, left the St Louis Cardinals. But he didn't head for New York or Boston. Instead he signed for the Los Angeles Angels, for a guaranteed $250m over 10 years, believed to be the second biggest contract in the history of team sport, exceeded only by the Yankees' $275m deal with slugger Alex Rodriguez.
Yes, Pujols is generally regarded as the game's best current player. But a 10-year contract for someone who is already 32, an age when most baseball careers – unless aided by steroids – have peaked? And it has been whispered that Pujols may be a tiny bit more than that (tinkering with birthdates is not unknown in his homeland, the Dominican Republic, whose main export industry is of fabulous baseball players to the US major leagues). The Angels, it was said, were taking a terrible risk. But not if you look at the money.
Back when the Dodgers and Giants relocated to Los Angeles and San Francisco, it was simple box-office economics. In New York, the stadiums were grimy and ancient and often two-thirds empty. Booming but baseball-less California offered spanking new facilities, to be filled with new fans with their own major league teams to cheer at last. Today, it's all about television.
A few days before announcing the Pujols deal, the Angels were on the receiving end of an even larger one with Fox Sports. The Murdoch-owned network will reportedly pay $3bn over 20 years in broadcasting rights, tripling the franchise's TV revenues to $150m a year.
Armed with that kind of money, the Angels didn't stop at Pujols. They also signed CJ Wilson, the top free agent pitcher available, to a five-year deal worth $77m. In sport, money can't buy everything (just ask Manchester City), but it sure helps. Yes, anything is possible in a baseball regular season which is 162 games long, but already the Angels are co-favourites in Las Vegas to win the 2012 Series.
Then just last month, the second shoe dropped. Despite being forced into ignominious bankruptcy by the disastrous ownership of Frank McCourt, the Dodgers were certain to fetch big money when the team was auctioned off by Major League. The Dodgers were baseball aristocracy, underpinned by the country's second-largest media market. But were they worth $2.15bn?
That was the winning bid by a consortium headed by the local hero Earvin "Magic" Johnson, erstwhile superstar of basketball's LA Lakers. It was the largest sum ever paid for a sports franchise anywhere, eclipsing the Glazers' $1.5bn acquisition in 2005 of Manchester United, and double the previous US record, the $1.1bn that developer Stephen Ross paid in 2008 for the Miami Dolphins of the NFL.
As with the Angels and Pujols, the Johnson-led group has been accused of paying way over the odds. But that is to ignore future TV rights, which could be even more lucrative than the Angels' $3bn. Coming off the financial shambles of the McCourt era, the Dodgers have not got the players right now to contend for a World Series. But a stable ownership, and the influx of TV money, makes it all but certain they soon will.
Naturally, the seemingly insatiable public appetite for live televised sport in the US doesn't exist only on the West Coast. The Phillies, the Red Sox and of course the Yankees with their cable TV cash-cow, the YES Network, all stand to gain. But for the moment at least, the north-eastern powerhouses are dormant.
The Yankees, as always, will be there or thereabouts in the American League come season's end. But the Red Sox have done little to strengthen their team after last season's humiliating late collapse that saw them miss the play-offs. In the National League East, the Mets are digging themselves out of the financial rubble left by the Bernie Madoff scandal. Age and injuries meanwhile threaten the long dominance of the Phillies, who have the remade (and renamed) Miami Marlins and the promise-packed Washington Nationals both snapping at their heels.
And it's not only the West Coast that is challenging the old order. Thanks mainly to TV, new baseball powers have sprung up in the heartland. Detroit may be an economic and financial basketcase – but that has not deterred the Tigers from splashing out $214m on a nine-year deal to secure slugger Prince Fielder. Indeed, salaries of $15m a year (in Premier League parlance, about £185,000 a week) are now the starting norm for baseball's elite players.
Down in the giant Dallas-Fort Worth media market, television money is working its magic too. In each of the last two years, the Texas Rangers have reached the World Series but lost. In 2012, they intend to go one better and, fuelled by a reported $1.6bn 20-year TV deal (again with Fox), have signed up a host of big names – none bigger than pitcher Yu Darvish, 6ft 5in with orange tinted hair, and rock-star status in his native Japan. In Boston, New York and Philadelphia, that is not good news at all.
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