July 19, 2010

Is lack of a salary cap undermining interest in MLB?

There was an eye-opening Harris Poll released last week that said interest in Major League Baseball has slipped to 35 percent among adults who say they follow the game, down from last year’s 41 percent.

While it’s tempting to say it’s only one poll, or it’s only a one-year anomaly – because we’re in an era of short-attention-span theater, a recession or have so much fighting for our entertainment dollar – but what if it isn’t?

Is it possible that the lack of a salary cap is finally catching up to baseball? Many fans have long decried the lack of a cap, the disparity it engenders between big-market and small-market teams. The behemoths of the game, led by the Yankees, Red Sox, Philles and Mets, can hoard the best players because they can afford them.

It leaves large swaths of the league competitively irrelevant (did you know the Pirates have had 17 straight losing seasons?) and while some of those teams are simply poorly run, baseball’s lack of institutionalized parity plays a big role. The NFL is the best example of how the salary cap improves the health of a league overall. Small-market teams like Green Bay can be perennial contenders, something MLB's Pirates or Royals can never aspire to.

The NHL is competitively healthier since its salary cap was instituted. The NBA’s is getting so out of whack because of loopholes – such as allowing three players to build themselves a superteam in Miami –- it may shut down the game to fix it when its collective bargaining agreement expires.

Baseball’s poll numbers point to a growing regional divide, the sign that the lack of parity has tipped dangerously east, where the big spenders reside. While 48 percent of those in the Eastern U.S. follow baseball, the numbers dwindle to 38 percent for the Midwest, 34 percent for the West and 29 percent in the South.

Those numbers mesh with what has happened on the field in the past 17 seasons. Twelve of the past 17 World Series winners have come from teams in the East, seven by the Yankees and Red Sox, who have spent billions trying to outdo each other.

Teams from the Midwest have won just two of those World Series. Teams from the West have won two, and teams from the South -- thank you, Atlanta -- have won a paltry one.

The East-West divide is even more pronounced when you look at all the teams who have reached the World Series stage. Of the past 34 teams, only eight have been from west of the Mississippi. Of the past 17 World Champions, only three have come from west of the Mississippi.

That doesn’t sound like a league with an anomaly. It sounds like a league that may have tipped dangerously out of balance.

Who's a Fan of Big-League Baseball? {Adweek}
Harris Poll: Fewer Americans Say They Follow Baseball This Year {Sports Business Daily}

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