To: Bud Selig From: Tom Verducci Subject: World Series
This is an article from the Nov. 10, 2008 issue
World Series is embedded in our vernacular as the ultimate competition, having inspired, to various degrees of gravitas, World Series of Golf, Poker, Birding, Blackjack, Linux, Wine and Beer Pong. The baseball version needs your help. The 104th Fall Classic was the least-watched Series on record, marred by cold, rain, wind, mud, snow and one game-winning hit at two o'clock in the morning. It is your call to reexamine everything about the World Series to restore its luster.
MORE PEOPLE watched the NBA Finals, according to Nielsen ratings, than the World Series, the first time that had happened since a popular fellow named Michael Jordan was winning the last of his championships in 1998. More people—29% more—watched a football game between Penn State and Ohio State than the rain-delayed Game 3, which was the least-watched World Series game on record. Overall World Series viewership dropped 17% from the previous worst-rated Series (2006, St. Louis versus Detroit), 21% from last year (Boston versus Colorado) and 47% from the high-water mark of Fox Series telecasts since 2000 (2004, Boston versus St. Louis). The World Series audience has been cut by more than half since the expanded playoff format began in 1995.
Is baseball in trouble? Not even close. On the contrary, as you reminded me in our phone conversation two days after the Series ended, the sport never has generated more money or offered better competition. It brings in as much dough as the NFL. The Phillies and the Rays made it eight franchises, the maximum, to play in the past four World Series. Half the franchises in baseball have won a pennant in just the past 10 years.
"Every economic barometer of this sport is unbelievable," you told me. "Local TV ratings, property sales, regional ratings, TV sponsorship, next year we start our own network.... We have six-and-a-half-billion dollars in revenue and average 32,539 fans a game."
The vexing problem is that the sport's crown jewel, the World Series (and, by extension, its run-up of six Division and League Championship Series), suffers from a diminution that runs counter to virtually all of baseball's other indicators. "That's true," you said. "We need to do better. It's hard to understand why there isn't more interest. I am concerned about it, and I will spend a significant part of this off-season looking at what to do about it. We will reexamine everything we can."
Some of the erosion can be written off to the fractured television market, although the NFL, NBA and NHL all added viewers to their jewel events this year, and Philadelphia and Tampa Bay represented the fourth- and 13th-largest TV markets in the country. Some of it can be written off to bad luck. For the first time ever, for instance, five straight World Series have not extended past five games, killing the usual buildup of interest. The weather was another factor: It was beautiful before and after the Phillies hosted Games 3, 4 and 5, but often atrocious during those three matchups.
The problem with the weather excuse is that baseball is partly to blame. It has increased its vulnerability to bad conditions because of games that start late and take longer to complete and because it continues to stretch the schedule deeper into the fall. The average postseason game took three hours, 26 minutes this year—19 minutes more than 10 years ago and 36 minutes more than 30 years ago. That additional length is almost all downtime that encourages viewers to hit the remote: pitching changes, extended commercial breaks, constant timeouts by batters and catchers, etc.
When you play deeper and deeper into the night and deeper and deeper into October, you increase the risk of weather conditions affecting play. Of the past 22 World Series games, four have been played with a roof. Of the other 18, 11 have been delayed by rain or started in temperatures of 49° or colder.
Beginning last year, baseball added four off days to the postseason schedule to accommodate Fox's request to start the World Series on a Wednesday. This year's Series was projected to end, given a full complement of games and no rain, on Oct. 30, the second-latest scheduled Game 7 ever. Next year, because of the World Baseball Classic in March, is even worse: Nov. 4. That's too late.
What can you do about restoring the World Series? You and your broadcast partners should put all options on the table. Here are some to discuss:
Move up start times
"The games start too late" is a popular complaint, but it's nothing new. Remember when Carlton Fisk hit that famous home run in 1975? He did it at 12:33 a.m. First pitch was at 8:32 p.m. Tug McGraw striking out Willie Wilson in 1980 to clinch Philadelphia's other world championship? It happened at 11:29 p.m. First pitch was 8:29 p.m. And what about the classic 1991 World Series between the Twins and the Braves? No game started earlier than 8:28 p.m. eastern time. (By the way, that Series, also with two low-profile teams, drew almost three times as many viewers as Phillies-Rays.)
Late start times have been a way of life in the World Series for decades. The last day game was in 1987. But the start times have become a bigger problem as the games have gotten longer. The average postseason game now ends near midnight. Asking viewers to stay up that late during the week for nearly a month brings attrition into play. Would more people watch if they knew the game would end at a decent hour? That was the case with the resumption of Game 5, which took 78 minutes and was the highest-rated night of the series (19.8 million viewers, 10 million more than saw the Game 3 late show). And is it more important to accommodate Philly and Tampa Bay fans, for instance, or the 14% of the population that lives in the western time zone and doesn't have a team in the Series?
I understand you plan to push for earlier start times—8:05, 7:35, maybe even sooner. Every little bit helps. Good luck with Fox, which has affiliates making tons of money on 7:30 p.m. reruns. The least that could be done is a 6 p.m. weekend start, which would mean less money and lower ratings for one night but would be a huge symbolic stand: that baseball does care about kids and the conditions in which its championship is determined.
Tweak the rules
You said you will present to the rules committee, and eventually the players' association, a proposal to formally establish that no postseason game can last fewer than nine innings. You enacted this change in playing rules during Game 5, probably the first such unilateral on-field change by a commissioner since Kennesaw Landis removed Ducky Medwick from Game 7 of the 1934 World Series for his own safety after Medwick was pelted with debris by Detroit fans. Even the Phillies, who stood to win 2--1 if the soggy game was called after the fifth inning, agreed that no postseason game should be abbreviated. It was the right call, but you admit you erred in not informing the media, especially Fox, before the game, inviting confusion and criticism.
Other rules can improve the pace of play. Catchers' trips to the mound, which got out of hand this postseason, need to be limited. Pitching changes should have a time restriction, such as three minutes, as monitored by an umpire. The new pitcher should be on the rubber and ready to face the hitter no more than three minutes after the coach or manager crosses the foul line, under penalty of a ball being added to the count. No more delay tactics.
More retractable roofs
No stadium should be constructed without one. The biggest change in sports over the past quarter century is that the games are no longer athletic competition that happens to be televised, but rather television programming that happens to be athletic competition. Why not guarantee your TV programming with technology that has been used successfully for at least 23 years, going back to the building of Toronto's SkyDome? Yet baseball has allowed construction of ballparks without roofs in New York (twice), Minnesota, Baltimore, Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, Philadelphia, Washington, St. Louis, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh and Colorado. When the Twins ditch their dome for an open-air ballpark in 2010, you will have more teams in cold-weather venues without a roof (16) than in warm-weather cities or stadiums with a roof (14).
It makes sense to encourage the additional cost of about $100 million per ballpark, especially against an expected building lifespan of between 50 and 80 years. Baseball should give teams an incentive to build retractable roofs by kicking in money from its central fund or allowing clubs to write down the cost against their revenue-sharing status.
Abbreviate the calendar
There is no way the teams will agree to shorten the regular season and you know it. Years ago, when you still held ownership in the Brewers, you thought you had enough support for a 154-game season to bring the question to a vote. Instead, not one owner even seconded the motion. It is not a realistic option.
What you have promised to do is attempt to excise the extra days from the postseason calendar. The Phillies had 16 days off in the postseason to play 14 games; they had 19 days off in the regular season to play 162. Tightening the postseason up would mean implementing a flexible schedule, which you've promised to look into. For instance, if both League Championship Series end quickly, baseball could move up the start of the World Series to avoid a week of downtime.
Build up the narrative
Charlie Manuel was 19 years old, in high school, married with a son, when his father, a preacher suffering from late-stage diabetes, committed suicide on April 9, 1963. He left a note for Charlie, asking him to take care of his mom, June, and 10 brothers and sisters in the tiny Blue Ridge Mountains town of Buena Vista, Va. Months later, after being recruited by North Carolina to play basketball and Michigan for football, Manuel signed a contract with the Twins for $20,000, giving a chunk of it to his mother.
Manuel kicked around the minors and majors as an outfielder for 13 years, played in Japan for another six, and put in 18 years as a scout, coach and minor league manager before getting his first big league managerial job in Cleveland in 2000. He survived cancer, bypass surgery and divorce along the way. The Indians fired him in 2002. Manuel joined the Phillies as a front office adviser before being hired as their manager in 2005. He was often derided by harsh Philadelphia fans as a funny-talking rube, though they likely had no clue Manuel overcame a severe stuttering problem as a youth.
"People are going to say a lot of things about you," Manuel said before Game 5, "and I've always taken that personally. When somebody attacks me personally, yeah, that kind of upsets me, because I wish they were standing in front of me. But at the same time that's part of it. And that's part of being mentally tough."
Manuel, 64, guided the Phillies to two straight playoff appearances, bringing the team back from seven games down in mid-September 2007 and 3 1/2 games behind in mid-September of this year. He had an insouciance about him that worked well in a harsh town but also a firmness that prompted him to bench Jimmy Rollins for not hustling during a regular-season game, then benching him again a month and a half later when the star shortstop reported late for a game. He made his mama proud. June Manuel died on Oct. 10, 19 days before her son became only the second manager in Philadelphia's history, after Dallas Green, to win the World Series.
"She'd be laughin' and gigglin' right now," Charlie said after the clincher, "telling everybody we've got a real good team."
The man known as Uncle Charlie had the right touch. "I don't feel like their uncle," Manuel said of his players. "I feel like their father." Manuel's long, sometimes tragic journey to the World Series is the kind of story Fox needs to tell before the Series, maybe as a special on its eve. Without the Yankees or the Red Sox or a Jordan, baseball needs to introduce viewers to the people and narratives, rather than hoping a seven-game Series reveals them. If viewers don't have their team in the World Series, they need something or somebody to care about.
Screw neutral sites
Based on sentiment from you and the owners, pundits calling for a Super Bowl--styled World Series held indoors or at a warm-weather site might as well suggest the games be played on the moon. Thankfully, it's not happening.
"The emotion in a city is so magnificent, you can't tear away the bond between the community and the team," you said. "People compare it to the Super Bowl. That's one game, not seven. It would make my life easier, but you can't do that to the fans. Could you imagine if the Cubs get to the World Series and it's not in Chicago?"
Many people frame the World Series against the Series they remember from their youth. For instance, the Phillies' championship in 1980, against the small-market Kansas City Royals, drew a 56 share. It was the last time half the households watching television tuned to the World Series. The TV landscape then was vastly different and far simpler. Football has since gained a far more prominent national profile, elbowing the World Series in October for sports consciousness, thanks to fantasy leagues, a national appetite for gambling and controlled violence, and wall-to-wall college and pro telecasts. People will watch collisions even with no rooting interest. Rutgers got more regular-season national prime-time exposure than the Rays did this year.
Baseball's bond with its fans is intensely local, as the Phillies proved with their cathartic championship. Philadelphia had been 0 for 99 since 1983 in major professional sports titles until the Phillies enhanced the city's pride and esteem. For the clincher last week, 73% of people watching TV in the Philadelphia market were tuned in to the game. (In Tampa Bay the game drew a less robust 45 share.)
Indeed, the Phillies are a prime example of what's right with baseball. In 2004 they moved out of soulless, multipurpose Veterans Stadium and into Citizens Bank Ballpark, a lovely baseball-only facility. The team drew 3.4 million people this year, more than double its attendance of six years ago at the Vet and nearly 800,000 more than the glory days of 1980. The local TV ratings have increased six years in a row, to a figure this year that was 21% greater than two years ago. The Phillies won with a homegrown core of exciting young players Philly fans have called their own for years: Rollins, Chase Utley, Ryan Howard, Pat Burrell, Cole Hamels and Brett Myers in particular.
Perhaps baseball, even while addressing start times, length of games and the playing calendar, must embrace its regional appeal while understanding a diminished national one. Without the Yankees, Red Sox or Cubs, or a compelling seven-game series, the World Series, while still a strong product (Fox picked up four nightly ratings wins with baseball and won the 18--49 demographic for the first time in months), can't be the supreme national institution it was. If the World Series rating is not the most accurate barometer of the game's health, so be it. But if you can't promise Fox anything close to those ratings of another era, you can at least make sure—by considering the aforementioned proposals—that you don't keep needlessly losing viewers before the Fox contract expires in 2013.
Last Friday afternoon, in perfect autumn weather for a ball game, more than a million people packed downtown Philadelphia to vicariously feel what it's like to be a winner. The streets were so crowded that the parade procession of trucks carrying the Phillies toward the ballpark hardly could squeeze through. To have watched the scene, and to understand this was the bond between baseball and the community at its best, was to dream that there is nothing wrong with the World Series. You know better.
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