Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Bigger Isn't Best For Baseball

I was originally going to include this little rant as part of my last post, but I decided it was important enough that it deserved a post of its own. Last time I discussed a breed of fan which is unfortunately all-too-common in today's sporting culture that I dubbed the "bigger is better" fan (henceforth abbreviated as BIB). This type is fascinated more by powerhouse teams, star players and glamorous franchises than a good underdog story. The media usually have the BIB's eating out of their hands, and it's a source of unending annoyance for those of us on the other end of the spectrum.

What I'd like to address is the ridiculous yet prevalent idea (usually parroted by the BIB's) that low TV ratings for the World Series are somehow "bad for baseball," and that the National Pastime's very survival depends on whether the big-ticket franchises are playing in the Fall Classic. First, let's take a little ride in Doc Brown's DeLorean. Anyone remember the 2008 World Series? It was the lowest-rated to date, perhaps in part because before it even began the matchup was dismissed as "boring" by many a casual fan. Which two teams were playing again? Let's see...the Rays and...the Phillies. Wait, the Phillies? The same Phillies baseball so desperately needed in the World Series this year because of the audience they brought? Those Phillies? Yep, the very same! But wait a minute! How is it that no one wanted the Phillies in the Series two years ago but today everybody does? Welcome to the world of the BIB, where all interest is dictated by the hype of the day.

If you recall, the matchup being touted during the League Championship Series in 2008 was Dodgers vs. Red Sox. Why, it was a ratings dream! Two franchises with national followings, and hey! You'd also have the storyline of Manny Ramirez facing his old teammates! After all, who doesn't love that dreadlocked lout? You know, I'll bet a World Series like that would be enough to resurrect the dying sport of baseball! It was such an exciting prospect but...doggone it, those spoilsports from Tampa Bay and Philly had to ruin everyone's fun by winning their respective LCSes. Rats!

While the BIB's were busy grousing about that snoozer of a matchup, the Phillies were beating the favored Rays and establishing themselves as a power in the National League. The next year they returned to the World Series, and before anyone even realized it, the Phillies were one of baseball's marquee teams! And to think, it all started when no one was watching!

Some "fans" might not watch this year's Series because they're unable to see past the fact that the Rangers and Giants aren't considered the most talented teams in their respective leagues, but what happens if this is the beginning of a multi-year championship-level run for one of them? You can bet that that team will be generating more interest and ratings down the road than it is now. They'll develop an aura of greatness, and within a year or two the BIB's will be complaining when they get upset in the playoffs by an underdog that most of us "humanist" fans are pulling for. They can't get to that level though, until they get a foot in the door.

What's the point of going through that growth process though? We already have sure-fire ratings-grabbers like the Yankees, don't we? Wouldn't it be best if a team like the Yankees were in the World Series every year? More fans would be interested and baseball wouldn't decline into irrelevance!

First of all, baseball is most certainly not declining into irrelevance. Just because it no longer rules the sporting roost like it once did doesn't mean it isn't wildly successful. Just three years ago baseball set an attendance record, and while the figure has seen a slight decrease since the recession, baseball is still the clear #2 sport in the U.S., and nothing else looks to supplant it anytime soon. Despite that fact, the ratings for the World Series have been on a downward trend over the past 15 years. That should be a sign that TV ratings are no longer a good gauge of a sport's relevance. In this era of the internet and smartphones, people don't have to have the TV on anymore to follow the game, so it shouldn't be much of a surprise that fewer people are watching the broadcasts in question.

Second, long-term dominance by one team kills interest in the game. What? No way! Big-ticket teams bring increased interest! Yes, in the short term. In the long term, fans in other cities lose hope and stop caring about baseball, and the only ones left are the big dogs' fanbases. Don't believe me? Let's hop in the DeLorean again, and this time set the time circuits to 2002. Back then the Yankees had won five of the last six AL pennants, and four of the last six World Series. Boy, baseball must've been at the top of its game then, right? Not quite. Attendance took a significant dip that year, to its lowest point in five years. There was also a work stoppage looming and contraction was being discussed by the higher-ups. Fortunately, they avoided both of those calamitous possibilities, and since then, what's happened? Well, the Yankees have declined to a mere playoff regular, rather than World Series regular, and we've had an era of parity. The World Series has featured new and exciting teams almost every year, and fanbases all over the country now have cherished memories they could only dream of ten years ago. Not surprisingly, interest and attendance have gone up throughout baseball. Oh, and by the way, have you heard any serious talk of contraction lately?

So I have a message for all you BIB's: Stop complaining and enjoy Game 1 of the World Series tonight. Are the two best teams in baseball playing? Perhaps not. On the other hand, perhaps they are and it just isn't readily apparent. Will the TV ratings be huge? Probably not, but who cares? When it's all over you're going to see a huge moment in the history of one of these franchises, and that is without question good for baseball. If you can't find that worth tuning in for, you're probably not cut out to be a fan of this great game.

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