Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Bud Selig at the All-Star break – sitting on the fence

Traditionally in the last decade NBA commissioner David Stern and NHL commissioner Gary Bettman have leveraged the platform provided by an All-Star Game to hold question and answer sessions with the media. Both Stern and Bettman follow the same practice at their respective league championship series, and Roger Goodell held his annual State of the National Football League at the Super Bowl.

Major League Baseball commissioner Bud Selig does things decidedly different from his counterparts – Selig is infamous for orchestrating impromptu media gatherings whenever Selig believes he has something worth sharing. There is no rhyme or reason to Selig’s media madness, but there is one certainty -- Selig as has often been the case since he became “interim” commissioner in 1992 on his best days Bud Selig is an ineffective communicator who rarely if ever appear comfortable when he’s forced to deal with the media.

Bud Selig’s day began with a Sports Illustrated report that suggested Selig would indeed become part of the Barry Bonds traveling road show. According to SI.com’s Jon Heyman “barring something unforeseen and drastic, Selig plans to be there when Bonds breaks the all-time home run record of Selig's longtime friend and Milwaukee mate Hank Aaron.”

Late Tuesday afternoon addressing the Baseball Writers' Association of America and every other media opportunity Selig was offered to ‘clarify’ the Sports Illustrated report Selig said: "Will you please stop asking me about this?"

"I understand that I am the commissioner of baseball, and this is the most hallowed record in American sports," Selig said. "I understand [the writers] have a job to do, and I'd be asking the same questions if I were you. But it's something I'm going to handle my own way. I'll do what I believe is in the best interests of baseball."

What isn’t in the best interests of baseball is a question posed during Selig’s non-traditional community chat. Monday Barry Bonds suggested it didn’t make much sense for Hank Aaron to follow him around waiting for him to set a new career home run record. While Bonds said Selig could do whatever Selig felt was in the best interests of baseball in terms of following Barry around waiting for Bonds to surpass Aaron for the first time Tuesday Selig said in no uncertain terms he (and therefore Major League Baseball) may not be a part of any celebrations the San Francisco Giants organize to recognize once Barry passes Aaron.

“I've said this over and over again. I haven't made a decision on that score, and won't until what I consider to be the appropriate time. The Giants will handle it anyway they want, and I certainly have no problem with that at all and I'll make a decision on that situation when I think it's appropriate.”

What makes Selig’s comments that much sillier – what Selig had to say about Barry Bonds on February 9, 2005 – the day Selig was in San Francisco to award the City by the Bay the 2007 All-Star Game, a lesson in being very careful about how what you say can come back to haunt you.

“What Barry has done is remarkable,” Selig said that day. “Certainly one can say this: Barry has done what nobody else has done. He deserves the credit he is getting.”

All Selig has been certain on over and over again is his complete inability to take a stand – to act like a leader and to respect the sport. As little sense as it makes for Selig to follow Barry Bonds around waiting for Barry to break Hank Aaron’s 755 career home run record, it makes no sense for Selig to insult Bonds by not recognizing his achievement. Where does Bud Selig’s responsibility fall as baseball’s leader during the steroid era?

Given that Selig seemingly believes it makes perfect sense for a sports leader to sit on a fence, is it time for Selig to retire, is it time for the game to benefit from new and decisive leadership?

“There are an increasing number of people who seem to believe that, but I will be done on December 31, 2009, and will have served for 17 years, which will be a long time, so I really do intend to retire at that point. But I want to really internationalize the sport even more.
“In this country we're doing great, new ballparks, both New York teams, Kansas City Minnesota are going to redo their ballpark. It's going to be spectacular. We're doing extremely well and I have some huge attendance number goals.

“But now the sport is so popular here, we need to bring it worldwide, and we're going to do that. So the next World Baseball Classic, we want to play some games in China, we want to play some games in Japan again next year, and this sport is growing now at a point that I think long after I'm gone, people will not recognize how really unbelievably popular it is.”

Baseball has grown tremendously in the last six or seven years. Giving Selig his fair share of the credit for the games growth, record attendance, stronger television ratings and better sponsorship numbers – it’s in the best interests of the game for Selig to retire sooner rather than later.

If you want to better appreciate how “wishy-washy” Selig is on the tough challenges baseball is facing, his comments on where Senator Mitchell’s investigation into the use of performance enhancing drugs in baseball illustrate how paramount it is that Selig step aside – leaders have to lead and Selig appears unable to stand up and be counted on.

“The Mitchell investigation is ongoing. I haven't given the senator any time frame. They are interviewing thousands of people, going from club to club and talking to a lot of people.

“Let me go back over the steroid thing. We have the toughest steroid testing program in American sports today. The minor league program is seven years old. So nobody can say we ignored it. We've banned amphetamines which have been around for 80 to 100 years.

“I just had 15 team doctors and six trainers in my office on June 18th, and we had Dr. Catlin, who was the leading expert on all of this who is trying to develop a test for human growth hormone, as well as from our two Olympic lads. They are very proud of our program. They believe that our program is as close to gold standard as it can be. They are satisfied that we have really made progress. They live with these players. They know, they are medical experts, they know what they are doing. So I'm very confident about that.

“My great frustration is on the human growth hormone, there's no question about that, and I feel frustrated, but there is no test. There is no test. No one has a test. The National Football League has joined us in the -- in our testing program at UCLA where with Dr. Catlin and I hope that Dr. Catlin will find a suitable test in the near future.”

In a July 4 interview in The Boston Globe Senator Mitchell made it clear he hopes if nothing else baseball should learn from its steroid era and move forward, unlike Bud who sits on the fence waiting for someone to make a decision.

One short term focus for Selig – the continued globalization of the sport.

“Next year we hope we can play in China. (that won’t include the Boston Red Sox) I believe we'll play in Tokyo again. But baseball is getting so popular all around the world. There's a new baseball league in Israel now. I'm very confident that even by 2009 when we get to the World Baseball Classic; you will be shocked at how popular the sport is everywhere. It is just exploding all over the world.”

One issue Selig offered a clear understanding – why he doesn’t expect to see baseball back as an Olympic sport following the 2008 Olympics. London 2012 officials saved close to $100 million when the International Olympic Committee pulled baseball and women’s softball from the Olympic program. IOC officials have made it clear; unless and until baseball best players are representing their countries in the Olympic Games the IOC isn’t interested in baseball being welcomed back into the Olympic family.

“The problem with the Olympics, not that we don't want to be in it, but we can't stop the season in the middle of the season for two or three weeks in August or we would be playing baseball end of December. It's just a practical matter that has kept us from going into the Olympics, and we certainly have great desire to be there. But imagine telling all of our fans on August 15th, we'll see you Labor Day; that would not go over very well.”

Selig drinking his own Kool-Aid believes the game is experiencing a ‘golden era’ when everything appears bright for baseball as a sport and as a business.

“The golden age or golden era of baseball, as of Sunday baseball had drawn at the Major League level, 41,600,000 people. That's four to five percent ahead of last year which was the record year. The Minor Leagues are going to set an all-time attendance record.

“Back to the Major Leagues for a minute, we will draw well in excess of 76 million people. We are at numbers nobody ever dreamed possible. The television ratings are terrific for all of the local clubs, FOX's ratings are up, ESPN's ratings are up. There's no question by any criteria used, this sport is more popular today than it's ever been. And when you in October see what we drew for the season, people will be stunned.”

Several weeks ago baseball agent Scott Boras proposed a best of nine World Series played at one or two sites to be determined years in advance. Boras believes better event management could help showcase the World Series and baseball. There have been several reports linking Selig to the Boras plan.

“I know Scott Boras has made that suggestion. Right now, we have a long post-season, and there are some people that would like to take the first round 3-to-5 and make it 5-to-7 but we are going to end up on November 1st and I'm satisfied quite frankly that seven games -- the system is working.

“I just got done saying, the sport's never been more popular. People love the wild-card. I remember all of the abuse I took about the wild-card 13 years ago and now everybody loves it, of course.

“So the question being now, do you want to increase anything, and the answer is no. Seven-game World Series is great, and I read the other day, and it made me feel good, Derek Jeter said, "Seven games is long enough. That's a great series." I agree with Derek. That's right.”

Touché Bud we’re finally on the same page. There are several unique characteristics that separate the World Series from the Super Bowl. One of the best, the World Series is played in the home ballparks of the respective American and National League pennant winners and season ticket holders from the respective teams all get an opportunity to see their teams play in the World Series. The Super Bowl has evolved into a corporate event. The only football fans that get the right to buy tickets with a face value of more than $700 each is through a lottery. Believe in your baseball team, buy season tickets, the team makes it to the World Series – you’re onboard a train bound for glory. And a longer World Series – Selig pointed out an obvious reason why he isn’t in favor of seeing it take place.

“I'm always concerned about it, and I've often said that I would never want to see us play in November, and if the series goes seven games, that we're going to play on November 1st.
“But look, we had the rounds of playoffs. We're doing everything we can. The season ends September 30th. I think October will be a spectacular month. And you know, oftentimes, I just told the writers, too; I'm sort of an amateur meteorologist, and the weather often in late October is good, if not better than it is in early to mid-October. So I'm not overly concerned about that. It depends on who gets in the World Series. But we could have teams frankly playing in warm weather sites where there is no issues.”

Selig did take the time to address a number of different business related issues. Portland, San Antonio and Las Vegas have all expressed ‘some’ interest in becoming home to Major League Baseball franchises. As far as Selig is concerned there won’t be any baseball expansion in the near future (if ever).

“We've had enough expansion. We had expansion in '93. We had expansion in '98, and I think baseball has expanded now. At least as long as I'm commissioner, I think any further expansion I think would hurt the sport, as a matter of fact, considerably.”

One issue that Selig was asked to address in his All-Star Game media opportunities – what steps is he willing to recommend to the owners to reduce the financial disparity and spending on talent by some clubs which is promoting an imbalance of parity in this game?

“We have more parity than ever before. This sport's never had that much parity. And the fact of the matter is that Detroit, which lost 119 games three or four years ago, won the pennant last year and has a wonderful team this year; Cleveland has now come back and Milwaukee is leading the National League Central. You're seeing parity all over the place here.

“We're going to have 350 million of revenue sharing this year. We have a tax on payrolls. One of my frustrations is, I don't think people understand how much the economics of the sport have changed. They have changed dramatically.

“I like competitive balance better because I think it really shows as a sport how much competitive balance we have between the teams. We have 30 teams, and I really think what we've done -- that's what we set out to do -- has improved that remarkably.”

For SportsBusinessNews this is Howard Bloom

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