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Coin Is The Lord Of The Realm

Last Tuesday's All-Star Game in Cleveland, televised by Fox, had the lowest ratings ever, according to Nielsen. Even worse than last year, which had been the previous low-water mark.

Last season's World Series suffered a 23 percent drop in viewership from the year before. Attendance at major league parks last season was down 4.1 percent, and it's lagging another 1.5 percent so far this season. Since 2007, turnstiles are clicking more than 14 percent less often.

It's all so bleak, so depressing. Kids aren't watching. Millennials think the game is boring. Thirty- and forty-somethings are into the NFL and cage fighting. Some old people still enjoy watching baseball, but what do they know? They even watch golf on TV.

Well, not so fast.

Seems that MLB will have a new television deal with Fox, TBS and ESPN beginning in 2022. Forbes says the arrangement will net the baseball establishment almost 50 percent more dollars than the present contract, jumping from $1.5 billion annually to $2.28 billion. The deal will be good for seven years.

That's decent change for something that people don't watch. Consider that Fox has been continuously televising baseball since 1996. In addition to the All-Star Game, it airs lots of Saturday games, some playoff games, the World Series, and Spanish broadcasts on Fox Deportes. Wouldn't the network be smarter just to keep showing Andy Griffith reruns?

Obviously not. The big winners, of course, are the wealthy folks who own the teams, along with those of us who still hold baseball dear to our hearts. The only difference is that we pay the tab which flows naturally to the 30 ballclubs.

Maybe viewership has diminished, but at the same time the value of a major league franchise rose eight percent last year, according to Forbes. If an owner chooses to sell today, the average price is $1.78 billion.

MLB commissioner Rob Manfred began his tenure in January 2015, and his contract was extended through 2024 by the owners last winter. "Under Manfred, the league has posted record profits," reported the New York Times at the close of baseball's meetings last November.

Because of revenue sharing, all teams benefit from these colossal numbers, although some teams are just a little more equal than others. The Yankees take the cake in this regard because of their local media revenue of approximately $712 million. That's more than the bottom four teams combined.

Nobody can top the Yankees, who, if you haven't noticed, have the second best record in baseball. The Dodgers at 62-33 are the winningest team this morning and, lo and behold, their local revenue is second only to the Yankees. The other big money teams, the Red Sox and Cubs, have enjoyed success in the win-loss column in recent years. The Cubs will begin to reap even greater benefits next season when their Marquee network deal kicks in. It's good to be rich.

But don't pity the White Sox, whose operating revenue ranks sixth among the 30 teams. It's no secret that the club's payroll is in the bottom third of all franchises, and the cash on hand was enough to make the finals in the Manny Machado bidding. Not that it matters so much, but attendance at The Grate is up more than 4,000 fans per game, a number topped only by the Phillies this season as far as increased attendance is concerned.

In ancient days prior to television and all the marketing gimmicks, the only way to make money in baseball was to put fans in the seats. That strategy helps today, but by no means is it an indicator of profitability.

More important is that the Sox will get a larger piece of the NBC Sports Chicago pie once they don't have to give the Cubs a share.

Furthermore, with the exception of Jose Abreu, young players like Lucas Giolito, Eloy Jimenez, Yoan Moncada and Tim Anderson are going to be around for the next five or six years because of their contracts and service time.

Returning just for a moment to the failure to sign Machado, who got a $300 million/10-year deal from the Padres to play shortstop, the Sox might have been lucky that they lost out on Manny. Anderson's persona and feistiness, along with his slashline of .317/.342/.832, have become a major trademark of this team. His absence the past 12 games due to a sprained ankle was on full display over the weekend as the Sox were swept in Oakland. There is a gaping hole in the lineup - they scored just five runs in the three games - without the team's shortstop, and his replacement on Sunday, Jose Rondon, threw wildly in the ninth inning on a potential double-play ground ball, enabling the winning run to score.

Given their druthers, many Sox fans would choose Anderson, who's signed through 2024, rather than Machado, who will be 35 when his contract ends.

I spent a portion of the All-Star break re-reading John Helyar's Lords of the Realm, a detailed description of the labor movement in baseball published in 1994. Prior to the 1994 strike which wiped out the World Series, the owners communicated to the players that the game was "going straight to hell" because of the following contingencies:

"Baseball's declining ratings on both network TV and local broadcasts.

"Baseball's declining demographics - an older, poorer audience than that of the NBA and NFL.

"Baseball's rising ticket and concession prices. (The cost for a family of four to attend a game has crept over $100 at some parks.)

"Baseball's rising salary burden (growing at 63 percent of the gross by 1993) contrasted with its falling revenues (a projected 50 percent drop in network TV revenue after that year)."

Much of this sounds familiar a quarter-century later, yet the game doesn't appear to be mired in Hades. Any one of the 30 owners' cash position would be nicely enhanced if he or she opted to sell while the Charlie Tilsons of the world have to muddle along for a paltry half-million or so a season.

Charlie and his mates no doubt are relieved to get out of Oakland where the A's, with a slightly higher payroll than the White Sox, sit 12 games above .500. Dating back to 2017, the Sox have lost eight straight games in the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum, known as a "multi-purpose stadium," the translation of which is, "Don't play baseball here."

Now it's on to Kansas City for four games where the Royals pay their players $15 million more than the Sox tab of $62 million. The additional payroll hasn't been a factor as the Sox lead the Royals by 12½ games in the Central Division. If anyone cares, the games will be televised.


Former Bill Veeck bar buddy Roger Wallenstein is our White Sox correspondent. He welcomes your comments.

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