By Matthew Hendley
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But much like the Republican Party, the game is hamstrung by its sizable purist wing, those who believe the slightest change invites heresy. Meanwhile, the economic disparities continue to mount.
No one knows this better than the people of Kansas City. During the '70s and '80s, the Royals were a power on par with the Red Sox, despite playing in the country's 31st-largest market.
"Stands were filled," says Joe Posnanski, the town's former dean of sports writers at the Kansas City Star. "Everyone talked about the Royals. It was really one of the best baseball cities in America at that time."
Yet Kansas City stopped playing for titles in 1985, just as the league's crevice between rich and poor was becoming too wide to jump. The Royals sunk to little more than schedule-filler, a talent farm for the rest of baseball.
Players like Carlos Beltran, Johnny Damon, and Zack Greinke "were traded before their contracts expired because the Royals said they could no longer afford them," according to Posnanski. "It started to feel like a vicious circle."
He has no doubt that "if the Royals start to win, and win big, the young fans will get excited about them."
But that winning part is a big if. Local TV will bring Kansas City just $20 million this year. Even with an estimated $25 million in revenue-sharing, they're still at a 4-to-1 disadvantage against the Dodgers. Toss in a potential fan base that's but a speck of L.A.'s, and the Royals become a mom-and-pop clothier parked next to Walmart.
They might win a sale or two, even have a good year. But few succeed in business or baseball when the odds are this stacked.
The collapse of baseball's TV revenue won't come from die-hard fans. There's no indication that the sport's truest disciples won't pay more and more until there's nothing left.
The problem is non-fans, who are picking up most of the check.
Here's how it works: Just six companies control 90 percent of America's TV programming. And they won't let your local provider simply carry the channels you actually want to watch to keep your bill modest.
"It's incredible," says Matthew Polka of the American Cable Association. "If you want one popular channel, they make you take 10."
Most contracts require that all channels be included as part of a cable company's "basic" package. That's why your TV menu is loaded with shows about tow-truck drivers and women who make bras.
"It causes us to basically be forced to provide a bloated, expanded level of basic-cable service," says Polka. "Our customers know that these aren't channels watched on a regular basis, but they still have to pay for the monthly subscriber fee. Because of your market power, you are essentially forcing me to carry channels I don't want."
Baseball rides comfortably in the back seat of this strong-arm game. According to the research firm NPD Group, the average cable or satellite bill will reach $200 by 2020. Half of that fee will go to sports. And everyone pays, because most providers are barred by contract from moving sports to a premium package.
That's why Fox can double its payments to carry the World Series. Though only 10 percent of America will watch, the remaining 90 percent will cover the freight.
Yet consumers have clearly tired of picking up someone else's check. During a single quarter in 2012, Comcast lost 117,000 subscribers. While such figures are cyclical, cable and satellite have lost customers nine years running.
What's worse for baseball, the largest exodus involves the young, who increasingly turn to cheaper fare like Netflix and Hulu. They're not just turning away from the game; they don't even want access.
But neither the television industry nor baseball seems to notice these darkening skies. Take the country's most obsessive TV market, Los Angeles, where a school of piranhas has attacked the city's cable bill.
Not long ago, L.A. hosted just two regional sports channels. Soon there will be seven. The Lakers charge $4 a month. Fox bills $5.40 for its two channels. The Dodgers are expected to add another $5. And Bevilacqua just negotiated a stunning 500 percent increase for the Pac-12's media rights.
"There are no new pro or college games being created," says DirecTV's Dan York. "But what used to be delivered via two regional sports networks now seeks to be re-sliced into [multiple channels and] more costs for consumers. That's not a sustainable model."
Yes, the die-hard Dodger fan will readily fire up his debit card to cover the impending $200 tab. But the team's broadcasts average just 100,000 viewers. That means the remaining 5.6 million L.A. households with cable must be convinced to pay the same to catch such searing drama as Vanderpump Rules and Confessions: Animal Hoarding.
One needn't be an economist to know this won't turn out well.
It is time for a customer revolt. The cable companies are perfectly able to create custom packages for each customer's interests. The problem is Congress is in the pocket of companies like Viacom, and won't change the laws to require cable to offer custom packages. Maybe only anti trust lawsuits can end this racket. Under the current model Kansas City, Pittsburgh and Florida will never, ever again be in World Series. And it looks like no one cares anyway. I have a 20 year old son, and he and none of his friends care one iota about baseball. It's all NBA and NFL only.
I think your commentary on mlb economics was a wonderful, eye-opener for both sports fans, and non fans. You explain the crazy rise in prices to the viewer, but also point out potential exit strategies for non fans. I read your article in The Riverfront Times, in St Louis, Mo. I wonder why you had to tarnish your article by comparing baseball purists, to the Republic Party. The President won handily, but by only 4%. The Senate & House are under different parties, much change is in the air. I wonder why one political party was brought into a sports article? And in a negative manner? Thanks for the informative article.