Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Major League Baseball at the All-Star Break – Biz is pretty good

Baseball fans still fondly love to refer to the Major League Baseball All-Star Game as the mid-summer classic. The All-Star Game may not have the luster it once did (before interleague baseball) but of the four major sports all-star events, baseball’s version of collecting the stars stands out above the football, basketball and hockey versions. As Major League Baseball hits the unofficial halfway mark, the business of baseball continues to grow both at the box office and just as important MLB television ratings continue to grow.

Major League Baseball is on pace for a fourth consecutive year of record-breaking attendance, with 41,624,170 fans attending the first 1,312 games through the All-Star break for an average of 31,726 fans per game.

Twenty-one of the 30 Major League Clubs are ahead of their pace at the same point in the record-breaking 2006 season. Overall, the attendance is up 4.1 percent over the same date in 2006, when 76,042,787 attended for an average of 31,423 fans per game. The 2004 season drew 73,022,969 fans, while 74,926,174 attended in 2005.

According to a Multichannel News report: Over 17 telecasts through May 22, ESPN is averaging a 1.5 rating on major-league telecasts. That represents a gain of 15% in viewing households, compared to baseball's rating of 1.3 for 29 telecasts at the start of 2006, according to the network. Artie Bulgrin, ESPN's senior vice president of research and sales development attributes some of the increase to dropping some daytime games this season, since afternoon baseball generally gets lower ratings. But he said the gains overall reflect significant fan interest in the sport.

The same is true for Fox Sports Net's owned-and-operated regional sports networks. Ratings for the FSN services are up 6% to a 3.39 rating, from a 3.19 last season.

Fox Sports Regional Networks executive vice president Jeff Krolic said ratings are up for teams in major markets, such as the Los Angeles Dodgers (2.1 rating, up 48%), Houston Astros (4.8, up 43%) and Detroit Tigers (5.7, up 50%).

“We're the network of the home teams, and a number of our home teams are doing well,” he said.

Both the New York Mets and New York Yankees are scoring big. The Mets' SportsNet New York is up 21% in household ratings (2.8 vs. 2.32 last year), while the Yankees Entertainment & Sports Network is averaging a 4.22 household rating, up 3.2% from its 4.09 rating in 2006, according to executives from both networks.

Bulgrin said young male viewing is up as well: ESPN is posting a 41% increase among its target male 18-34 demo for the season.

He said digital recordings are aiding baseball numbers among young men, even though few sports fans actually record live programming.

When Barry Bonds and the San Francisco Giants resume regular season play Friday night (at AT&T Park) against the Los Angeles Dodgers for a weekend series the focus of the baseball world will be squarely on Bonds. Four homeruns away from tying Hank Aaron’s 755 career home run mark, five away from establishing a new record baseball’s cable and over-the-air partners (ESPN and Fox) have every intention of bringing what will be the biggest sports moment this year to those interested.

Fox will feature the Giants/Dodgers game Saturday. Next week the Giants open the week (Tuesday) with a four game visit to Chicago’s Wrigley Field (ESPN has Monday’s game), before the Giants end the week with a three game set in Milwaukee. How appropriate would that be, Barry Bonds hitting home run number 756 in Milwaukee where Hank Aaron hit the last and 755th home run of his Hall of Fame career. Fox will feature the Giants game at Milwaukee on July 21.

"Do we have an interest? Absolutely," Fox Sports president Ed Goren told The Hollywood Reporter.

In not quite a case of history repeating itself Goren is looking at the possibilities of add games to Fox’s national coverage once Barry hits number 755 (tying Aaron). The precedent was set in 1998 when Fox and ESPN added games to their broadcast schedules focusing on Mark McGwire's attempt to set a new single season home run record in 1998. That said, a great deal has changed in terms of the perception of baseball’s home run kings – but that clearly won’t keep the networks away from sharing that moment in time.

ESPN will follow a plan along the lines of what they during the McGwire/Sosa 1998 home run battle and since. ESPN is expected to offer coverage of Bonds pursuit of Aaron’s record offering coverage of each of Bonds at bats. ESPN is expected to cut into regular programming to offer live coverage of each of Barry’s at bats.

"We are working with MLB, working out the details to be able to cover (Bonds' at-bats) from a certain point," DeLuca said. That could be after Bonds' 753rd or 754th home run and could be expanded to include "SportsCenter" and other programming on days that ESPN does not carry live baseball. ESPN carried McGwire's 61st home run of the 1998 season on a Labor Day telecast that ranks as ESPN's highest-rated non-NFL telecast.

"We obviously are very interested in doing it, and baseball has been proactive in getting the big stories out there," senior vp programming strategy Len DeLuca said in a Hollywood Reporter report.

DeLuca said that it's going to be a signature moment in sports history, no matter when it happens or who covers it. "I think you could make a very, very sane and cogent argument and legitimate argument that we're talking about the greatest record in sports," he said.

Being proactive Major League Baseball used the platform that the MLB All-Star Game can offer a sports league (more than 2,000 media people are in San Francisco covering the All-Star Game) Monday to announce a multi-media advertising and promotional campaign to promote MLB’s 2007 post season.

The campaign will be officially launched tonight during Fox’s broadcast of the All-Star Game somewhat appropriate given the winning league from the All-Star Game earns home field advantage for the World Series.

The campaign, entitled "There's Only One October," and featuring actor/comedian Dane Cook will highlight some of baseball's memorable postseason moments, while showcasing today's teams and most promising players in their quest for October greatness. The TV spots will provide a timely narrative of key stories which unfold during the regular season and their impact on shaping the 2007 postseason.

Also marking a first in 2007, Major League Baseball and its postseason broadcast partners, FOX and TBS, will work in collaboration on a postseason marketing campaign. FOX and TBS will run "There's Only One October" spots tailored to each of their network brands. The campaign will be supported by an extensive online and television schedule, both in-game and out-of-game, including CNN, ESPN, FX and TNT. Print advertisements will include Sports Illustrated and USA Today. Radio spots will air in select major markets including on XM Satellite Radio and ESPN Radio.

"The Major League Baseball All-Star Game is the premier television and sporting event of the summer. The start of our 'There's Only One October' campaign leverages this huge All-Star week audience and points them to our pay off month," said Tim Brosnan, Executive Vice President, Business, Major League Baseball. "Combining Dane Cook's talent, the video sharing components, and the depth of our broadcast partners' commitments to the campaign makes it our largest and most unique effort ever."

The 2007 postseason marketing campaign is being supported through numerous MLB assets including the launch of "actober.com." Powered by MLB.com, the official website of Major League Baseball, actober.com will be the first user generated content website produced by a major professional sports league. The site will give fans access to the largest archive of MLB footage in the world and will host over sixty clips of historical postseason baseball footage. Fans can utilize the vintage footage to create their own actober moments and win tickets to the 2007 World Series. Among the October "moments" featured on the site are classics such as Willie Mays' catch in the 1954 World Series, Kirk Gibson's dramatic walk-off home run in the 1988 World Series and Curt Schilling's bloody sock in Game 6 of the 2004 ALCS. Celebrities signed on to showcase their own actober.com moments include Kate Mara, William Peterson and Ellen Pompeo, with others expected to be added on a regular basis.

Evidencing the interactivity of the campaign, MLB will be continually soliciting input from fans through its online advisory fan panel. Fans will have the chance to tell MLB the moments they think should be featured in the advertising.

The television spots created by McCann Erickson with the support of MLB Productions will also be distributed to all of Major League Baseball's international broadcast partners in English speaking countries as well as locally within broadcasts of the 30 MLB Clubs.

Record attendance, good ratings numbers, an exciting proactive multi-media advertising campaign to promote what should be a great post-season baseball can’t hide from the upcoming findings of Senator Mitchell’s commission looking into the use of performance-enhancing drugs among baseball players. MLB commissioner formed the commission at the end of March 2005. Mitchell is expected to meet with New York Yankee Jason Giambi in the coming weeks and hopefully will then begin to put together his report. It’s likely the earliest Mitchell’s report could be released would be several months after the 2007 World Series but before the start of the 2008 season. Nothing like keeping baseball in the news during the off-season.

Last week Senator Mitchell spoke with The Boston Globe’s Stan Grossfeld and offered some interesting insight into what baseball officials should expect from his report.

"It will not just look backward to see what has happened -- I hope to assist everyone in baseball to look forward in a constructive way," Mitchell says. "To learn from the past and improve the situation and make less likely the use of these substances in the future."

And as Mitchell and everyone who understands the problems linked to the use of performance-enhancement drugs in sports, those who want to bend the rules are getting better at cheating.

"Yes, of course, that's part of the difficulty of the entire performance-enhancing substance situation," Mitchell says in a rare interview. "For example, it's commonly called a steroids investigation and when this problem first developed, steroids were used, but at least some of them remain in the body for some time and they are difficult to mask."

Mitchell suggested in The Boston Globe report that some of the blame needs to be placed on the drug manufacturers "began to develop other substances that aren't detectable by other current testing methods. The most common one is the human growth hormone. So, of course, you've seen a shift to human growth hormone because it is not detectable by a urine test.

"MLB right now and others have devoted substantial funds to accelerate research to develop a test for detecting human growth hormones through a urine test that's now in the process of research, and you can be certain that when that is developed, some new substance or combination of substances will appear that will not be detectable by urine testing. It's managing an ongoing problem."

"The notion that if you have one form of cheating, that all forms of cheating are the same, would be like saying stealing a loaf of bread is the same as killing six people," he says. "We all know of course that it isn't."

One of the greatest challenges Mitchell’s report will face is incentives linked to those capable of hitting home runs. Barry Bonds has been paid more than $172 million in his 23 Major League Baseball career largely because he is about to establish a new Major League Baseball career home run record. Barry has never tested positive for the use of banned drugs, but at the heights of his career Barry Bonds was among the highest paid players in baseball. Yankees slugger Alex Rodriguez will earn a base salary of $27 million this year. There have never been any suggestions A-Rod has ever used anything but his natural ability to become the best and highest paid player in baseball history.

The biggest challenges for baseball players is the temptation between being able to hit a baseball further and more often than others, how those goals can be accomplished and the financial incentives linked to achieving success on the diamond. A baseball player’s professional career can be very short but great baseball players can earn millions of dollars. It’s a classic ‘catch 22’ with owners wanting players to hit and play better (and prepared to offer bigger contracts) and players doing whatever they believe they as individuals must do to keep themselves in the game. If Mitchell’s report accomplishes anything putting safeguards in place to deal with that ‘vicious circle’ is essential.

Senator Mitchell made a number of issues clear to The Boston Globe – one crystal clear, he’s looking for solutions not to serve as judge and jury on what baseball players may or may not have done.

"Any players? Oh, no," Mitchell says. "The practices of the prosecuting authorities, including the US attorneys for Northern California, which has been the center of this [BALCO investigation], has been to pursue the manufacturers and distributors of such substances, not the athletes. There have been many, many cases of athletes being identified publicly as testing positive. No professional baseball player has been criminally prosecuted and convicted for these performance-enhancing substances."

Mitchell who really does seem to have an understanding of what he’s capable of accomplishing did offer some thoughts on those who haven’t acted in the best interests of their profession – the media.

"The principal victims . . . are the players who don't use those substances," Mitchell laments. "Their careers and livelihood are put at risk.

"There's a lot of discussion in the media of the integrity of the game, the effect on the fans and sports generally. All of which are important. But to me, the real issue is the effect on the competitors and the competition, and those who play by the rules and don't use these substances.

"They are the real victims."

It has been said before and it will be said again, Major League Baseball had a steroid era and there is nothing whatsoever baseball officials will be able to do to erase what has taken place. The media – the vendetta many media members have against Barry Bonds will continue regardless of whether Barry ever tests positive for any banned drugs. It’s a pretty safe bet if baseball officials, the media and baseball fans could ever truly learn the names of everyone who at one time or another used performance-enhancing drugs – the names and number of players would likely be stunning. Education is important, not only linked to cheating but to the inherent dangers linked to the use of performance-enhancing drugs. Better to create a better future, to learn from the past, than to ridicule, suggest and insinuate who may or may not have use performance-enhancing drugs.

For SportsBusinessNews this is Howard Bloom. Sources cited and used in this Insider Report: The Boston Globe and Multichannel News

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