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How the Dodgers' New TV Contract Exemplifies Major League Baseball's Problems 

Cable subscribers are subsidizing a dying industry

Thursday, Mar 28 2013
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Police in riot gear guard the dugouts, preparing for the worst, with German shepherds at heel. This is Philadelphia in 1980, after all.

It's the bottom of the ninth. Two strikes. Two out. Bases loaded.

Human rocket Willie Wilson of the Kansas City Royals hugs the plate, curiously dressed in full powder blue, a color fancied by baseball teams and wedding parties of the era.

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His nemesis this evening is Phillies closer Tug McGraw, whose fame will later be shadowed by that of his son, country singer Tim McGraw. The screwball artist fires a pitch letter-high, but Wilson can only flail. Kansas City's insurgency is repelled. The Phillies win their first World Series since forming during the presidency of Chester A. Arthur.

A record 54 million people tune into the game that night. It is perhaps the last time baseball can legitimately call itself America's national pastime.

Fast-forward to the fall of 2012. Marco Scutaro cracks a 10th-inning single into the wet outfield of Detroit, nudging the San Francisco Giants to a World Series sweep. The Nielsen ratings soon will reveal how far baseball has plunged.

An average of just 12 million people tune into the 2012 World Series — a collapse of nearly 80 percent from McGraw's heroics three decades earlier. In head-to-head competition, a regular-season NFL game will lap the Series by 10 million viewers. Geek sitcom The Big Bang Theory will pummel it by 5 million.

Even the investigative drama Person of Interest — featuring "a software genius and an ex-CIA operative who work together to prevent violent crimes before they can happen" — will beat the Series by 2 million viewers.

Baseball commissioner Bud Selig has little to say about this spurning of affections. This flight of fans, after all, is very old news.

Last October's contest marked the seventh straight Series to produce record-low ratings. Baseball's defenders have tried to explain the numbers away, citing late East Coast start times, an outbreak of entertainment alternatives and the favored wail of curmudgeons everywhere: that a younger, lesser generation of men prefers to whack pixelated zombies than witness the splendor of Pablo Sandoval going yard.

Others claim the Tigers and Giants failed to ignite the country's passion. "I am of the belief that the matchup of the World Series is always important," says Professor Wayne McDonnell Jr., known as "Dr. Baseball" for his study of sports at New York University.

But of America's three major sports, only baseball needs excuses.

The NFL's ratings remain on a march to the heavens; 108 million people watched the last Super Bowl. Viewership for the NBA Finals — though reduced from the days of Bird, Magic and Jordan — is once again climbing skyward.

Meanwhile, baseball's ratings continue to plummet, irrespective of month or matchup. Those record-low Series of the last seven years featured the game's biggest attractions, from the moneyed villains of Boston and New York to storied franchises like St. Louis and San Francisco. None stanched the bleeding.

Regular-season games have declined equally. Fox's Saturday audience has gone down an average of 800,000 since 2001. Sunday-night ESPN telecasts have shriveled by a million viewers in just the past six years.

In any other industry, such staggering drops would raise alarms of a rotting ship. One might presume that TV execs are screening Selig's calls. But the exact opposite is happening.

ESPN, Fox and Turner recently struck deals that double their annual payments to MLB. The Los Angeles Dodgers soon will ink a 25-year pact for local rights that's worth an estimated $7 billion to $8 billion.

If it all seems incongruent, born of the same economics that brought you bank bailouts and the housing crisis, that's because it is. Baseball, you see, is expecting you to pick up the tab.

In an age of stagnant wages, the average cable or satellite bill is expected to reach $200 by 2020 — even before extra fees for phone and Internet are added in.

"It's an unsustainable model for sports rights to escalate at a pace that's exponentially higher than wages for families," says Dan York, DirecTV's chief content officer. "It's coming to the breaking point."

Banking on the slowest falling star

Inside broadcasting's executive suites, the Holy Grail has a new name: "appointment TV," considered the last defense against a fierce and fast-encroaching enemy, the DVR.

The problem for networks is that viewers are no longer showing up when they're supposed to. Instead of planning Tuesday nights around, say, Justified, people are recording shows to watch at their convenience. And, unless they have a fondness for commercial interruptions, they'll be fast-forwarding through their daily regimen of Geico ads. Which makes Justified less valuable to advertisers.

Human nature, however, isn't partial to watching a baseball game three days after it's played. Viewers still want to see it live, even if it means opening their homes to Flo from Progressive.

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