Sunday, April 4, 2010

It's Springtime in Baseball Land

Tonight is the opening of the 2010 Major League Baseball regular season. The powers that be have decreed that, this year, the Red Sox and Yankees will face off as a prelude to the opening games of the puny rest of the teams in the league tomorrow. I suspect this decision was made because the Red Sox and Yankees don't get enough exposure, but I could be wrong.

The game is on as I write - though probably not as you read - and I am streaming it live to my computer on (soon to be "ESPN 3"). I have already made the plunge and purchased for the season, meaning I'll be able to follow the Rockies while I'm here in California and after I return to Hawaii. Since this game in nationally televised, however, the game is blacked out on, but fortunately ESPN is one of the few broadcast companies out there understands that the Internet is a great place to expand, rather than restrict, access to content.

Which leads me to the subject of this post: three questions (and my answers) to keep in mind while you watch your favorite team start off its season.

1) What role does the Internet play in baseball broadcasting, and what role should it play?

Major League Baseball was and remains ahead of the curve in terms of Internet broadcasting with the release of a few years ago. The NFL and the NBA have not adopted meaningful online broadcasting, unlike baseball, largely because so much of their TV income comes from national broadcasts instead of local ones. Baseball, as a sport with occasional national broadcasts, but predominately local TV stations that cover most of each team's games, is a prime sport for league-wide online broadcasting.

Unfortunately, MLB is way behind the curve in terms of actually making content available. The steep price of is understandable, given access to any and every broadcast during the season, but what makes no sense is MLB's proprietary attitude towards highlights and replays. Where the NBA is happy to parade its best players making great plays on YouTube, MLB systematically hunts down any unauthorized publishing of its content. The result, of course, is that MLB is losing a lot of exposure online - and not just among Americans - from which it could otherwise benefit.

The other problem with MLB's attitude towards the Internet is its backwards and confusing blackout rules. customers cannot watch live national broadcasts online - which makes sense given the investment ESPN and Fox put into those broadcasts - but neither can they watch local broadcasts if they are in the territory of the team who's broadcast they are trying to watch. That is troublesome enough, but what is truly infuriating is the nonsensical delineation of "territories." As a student in New Mexico, I never invested in because my Rockies were considered a "local" team in Santa Fe, despite being broadcast on TV only on Sundays. What's more, the Diamondbacks were also a local team, despite never being on TV. So a Diamondbacks fan living in Santa Fe could never watch his team live without buying a dish and the expensive MLB package thereon. In some parts of country the problem is worse; there are parts of the midwest (think Iowa) where as many as FIVE teams are blacked out. Yikes. Way to put the fan first.

Update: here's a take on the issue at "biz of baseball"

2) Why are baseball games so long, and how can they be shorter?

Baseball catches a lot of heat for having long games (which wouldn't be a problem if they all started mid-day on Sunday like in the NFL, instead of at 7 pm). This is especially true of nationally televised games, which have a tendency to run 4+ hours. Ever since TV, MLB has been fighting a losing battle with game length, but usually on the wrong fronts.

MLB's solutions to long games usually involve things like limiting the number of pick-offs or mound visits, and actually enforcing existing rules about how long a pitcher has to throw the next pitch. What MLB never really discusses is the incredibly long and unnecessary commercial breaks that do more to lengthen the game than anything else. During the playoffs, for example, it is not uncommon to see both teams wait in the dugout between innings for two minutes while the commercials run, before finally taking the field so they can finish their warmups in time to start the inning after the next two minutes of commercials run. Even during pitching changes - if the weather is cold - some players will leave field and wait in the dugout for play to resume.

Ignoring commercial break length when talking about baseball game length strikes me as a bit like ignoring military spending when talking about the US debt: it's the dishonest result of corrupted priorities. If baseball really wants to shorten games, they'll find a way to limit the length of commercial breaks. If they can't stand the lost income, then they'll just have to deal with how long games go, because they're not about to speed up the game itself.

As an aside on that issue, a great many people are opposed to including instant replay in baseball because of the increase in game time it would entail. This seems a bit questionable for a few reasons, the first of which being the strange notion I have that its more important to get calls right than it is to keep the game a few seconds shorter. The other problem, though, is that there's no indication that instant replay needs to make the game any longer. For one thing, it would shorten arguments - which can go on for quite a while - and for another, there's no need to copy the convoluted NFL replay system. Just do something more like the NBA on buzzer-beaters; take 15 seconds and check. No trouble, hardly any time, and better calls.

3) Is there parity in baseball, and does it matter?

Parity is something of a buzz-word in the sports world these days. Everyone wants parity, the NFL and the NBA are champions of the notion that every team can compete every year thanks to their salary caps and free agency systems. There is, however, no real indication that those leagues have any more parity than MLB does. The turn-around time from bad to good can be faster in other sports than in baseball (because developing good players takes a long time, and developing good players, on some level, is essential to success, even through trades), but that doesn't mean it happens. Baseball has the Pirates and Royals, who have been bad for over a decade, but the NFL has the Lions, the NBA the Knicks. What's more, while baseball certainly does have perennial powerhouses, when was the last time a season started when you honestly didn't expect the Patriots and Colts to be in the playoffs? Or the Lakers?

Parity, moreover, might be overrated. European soccer is notorious for not having parity, and no one seems to complain. That Manchester United, Arsenal, and Chelsea duke it out every year in the Premiership doesn't stop fans of Wigan Athletic or Tottenham from cheering on their teams.

Regardless of the desirability of parity, it's not clear that a salary cap would create it. Salary caps tend not to cause a fair distribution of talent, so much as ensure that well-run teams will dominate poorly-run ones - a fact that is true in any sports league. Salary caps, as I've argued before, also tend to allow big-market, rich teams to spend even more money on player development, scouting, and other expenses, which increases their competitive advantage. Look at the Lakers, who operate under the same cap as all other NBA teams, but dominate anyway because they can spend so much more on non-player expenses.

More than anything, though, salary caps move money away from players and towards owners. As egregious as baseball salaries are (and aren't NFL and NBA salaries just as extreme?), a salary cap would only allow already wealthy owners to increase profits. Would it really make us feel better if the Steinbrenners got to - were forced to - keep A-Rod's $250 million?


There you have it, not the gushy "hope springs eternal" stuff that kicks off the season on many sites, but so it goes. Of course, come tomorrow afternoon (while I'm working on my Master's project proposal), I'll be tuning in and watching the Rockies start off their season, all full of gushy hopes springing eternal, because it is, after all, springtime in baseball land.

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