Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Baseball's Steroids Era and Its Effects on MLS

The Barry Bonds trial is in full swing as baseball season prepares for opening day.  The trial continues to steal headlines from the purity of what baseball used to be and the Roger Clemens perjury trial looms ahead to steal even more.  

The steroids era is over for boosting ridiculous player egos, but the disgraces continue.  As the healing goes on, the Clemens trial should put a cap on things.

Has baseball lost its mojo?  Depends on who you ask.  Baseball has survived the steroids era just fine if you believe Forbes and their rankings of MLB teams' worth.  An average team is valued at 523 million dollars, with the top team, the New York Yankees valued at 1.7 billion and the lowest team, the Pittsburgh Pirates, at 304 million.   

Fan loyalty seems to have prevailed too just as it did a century ago during baseball's gambling era.  Since the steroids scandal, baseball has not seemed to have suffered any major repercussions.  Could there be a delayed reaction?  This year will tell a lot about the future of baseball, which is starting to see Soccer as a competitor more than ever before.

Baseball has less superstars and household names than in recent memory and Soccer in the U.S. may be at a turning point in its history.  

Many sports fans would argue that football replaced baseball as America's pasttime many years ago. Remember the commercial, "Baseball, hot dogs, apple pie and Chevrolet."  That slogan was from the 1970's.

Baseball has had a problem getting its game familiar to newer generations of people who are accustomed to an elaborate variety of entertainment options.  The regular season has been 162 games, 81 at home for dozens of years, but that may need to change soon as talked about in Baseball's most recent Winter meetings.  A more compact season could help baseball to sell a higher percentage of seats.  Fans may be losing the patience to endure so many games.

The steroids blew up the players and the statistics.  Fans bought in, so owners built bigger.  But now it looks like supply and demand may not be on baseball's side. 

Baseball made the mistake to go bigger with their stadiums, starting in the late 1990's.  Empty seats during the week and at the end of the season are noticeable and give out the impression that not many people care.  Smaller more fanciful parks like Wrigley and Fenway might have been a better solution, so sellouts are the norm.

An average stadium in MLB seats 45,000 people.  More than 12 of these stadiums were built years after the faux slugfest of Sosa, McGwire and Bonds.  These new stadiums made a mistake in judgment.  Stadiums really don't need to be bigger than 25-30,000 people.

St. Louis Cardinals Busch Stadium built in 2006 seats 44,000.
Steroids were not inconspicuous, in fact, it was quite the opposite.  Steroids were obvious.  But, the slugfest and the ensuing asterisk years were accepted and tolerated because of baseball's strike in 1994-95. 

Baseball's attendance was its best ever in the years after the strike, so the issue of steroids was ignored to make up for the strike year that disappointed so many.  The media fell in love with the majestically tainted homeruns, just like the owners, fans and every other ostrich with his head in the sand.

MLS had the unfortunate luck to start its league in the middle of baseball's inflated racket.  Its first 10 years, starting in 1996, were a blur, hidden from view and without too many Soccer-specific stadiums.  Its safe to say that MLS wasn't even a blip on MLB's radar.  A few years later though and things may be changing.

Is there any rivalry between MLB and its Soccer counterpart, MLS?  It would seem its definitely brewing, though there is hardly any mention of it in any mainstream sports media outlet.  It's hard to believe that baseball can make more money or its franchise values can go higher.  Economically speaking, logic would seem to dictate that baseball will trend down and Soccer will trend up.

This year for the first time, Soccer may be able to prove higher season attendance for when both a baseball and Soccer game are played on the same day in the same city.  This happens every so often over the course of the seasons for each of the metro areas; Toronto, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Dallas, Houston, Chicago, Washington D.C., New York, Kansas City, Denver and Seattle.

Television is the great equalizer.  Sports fans will take notice of empty stadiums just as they will take notice of full stadiums.  Watching loud, boisterous, full stadiums may lure new sports fans just as much as stale, boring, empty stadiums would lose old sports fans.

Television is the most prolific event marketer and teacher ever.  Television teaches what exceptional drama is and guides sports fans to choose one sport over another.

Though baseball has had its own recent decline in ratings, it still may not need to worry too much about Soccer.  A few years removed from the worst debacle in MLB history, the steroids era, and clearly MLS has not been able to take any major advantage when it comes to the most important indicator of success.  Last year's MLS television ratings were horrible. 

According to MLS executives, it is a question of time for television ratings to go up.  MLS is still building its base and expanding regionally throughout the U.S. and Canada. 

If a battle is waged, than something will have to give.  If Soccer becomes more mainstream, than baseball may have to downsize.  Can both be successful going for the sports fan's dollar, similar to how the NBA and NHL compete?  Is MLS willing to be the Hockey to MLB's Basketball?

It remains to be seen how each will define success for future years.  Its hard to predict the future.  But, the 'Beautiful Game' can be improved upon and fine tuned.  With ingenuity and attention to the sports fan's expectations, MLS could eventually overtake MLB as a more popular American spectator sport.

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