Baseball’s lucky break

The misfortunes plaguing other leagues are a good sign for baseball.

John Grimley

As spring takes its sweet time getting here, many people are starting to think about something that wonâÄôt cross their minds again until mid-September: professional baseball.

Yep, the Major League Baseball season is just around the corner.

Most years, casual sports fans view professional baseball as three big events with a bunch of games in between. The three most notable times for baseball are opening day, the all-star game and playoffs. Anything in between may as well be 4-hour games that end 2-1. Sometimes baseball looks boring.

Unfortunately for baseball, professional football has kept the nationâÄôs interest, perennially leaving MLB to duke it out with the National Basketball Association for second best.

Sorry hockey, you know where you stand.

However, due to circumstances completely out of its control, MLB may soon regain its claim of being AmericaâÄôs Game. A worst-case scenario leaves it as one of AmericaâÄôs only games.

You may have heard a little about the National Football LeagueâÄôs current disagreement between players and owners. Basically, the owners want the players to take a pay cut so the owners can make more money. The players are understandably less than thrilled with the idea.

Admittedly, both sides could still reach an agreement and play would resume as normal this fall, and everyone would forget about the whole argument by the time the playoffs started. However, both sides have dug in their heels and look prepared to forfeit the upcoming season. Player representatives have advised the leagueâÄôs employees not to make any large purchases and to start paying off their debts, just in case. Meanwhile owners still stand to make $5 billion from television contracts next year, regardless of whether thereâÄôs anything to show.

In terms of viewership, football has been the far more popular sport for the past five or 10 years. Last year, regular-season NFL games had a larger television audience than the World Series. Part of this may be due to the incredible length of a baseball season. It goes on for freaking half the year. The NFL season has less than 1/10 of MLBâÄôs games. By the time playoffs roll around, even the most ardent baseball fans (and undoubtedly most of the players) are feeling burnt out on the sport. ThereâÄôs only so many times you can watch Michael Cuddyer step out of the batterâÄôs box, re-adjust his gloves, scratch his jock and wiggle his helmet between every pitch.

The NFL is the most profitable league in the nation and has never had a work stoppage. An estimated 162 million people watched the Super Bowl. That is a gigantic fan base in need of entertainment if the NFL suspends play. When (or if) professional football starts up again, it will not be the well-oiled entertainment machine weâÄôve all become accustomed to. It will take time for players to get back into game shape and for the entire operation to find its rhythm again.

Baseball benefits because fans will be less focused on the NFL while it tries to regain its momentum. Instead, MLB will be entering the most entertaining part of its season while the NFL works out the kinks.

If the NFL grinds to a halt this year, baseball will be the de-facto professional sport for a few months in the fall.

Also vying for casual fan attention is the NBA. Unfortunately, that league also has a myriad of issues that it will have to deal with soon, any of which may cause casual fans to lose interest and wander over to baseball.

Unlike baseball, which has had eight different World Series champions in the past 10 years, the NBA is a very top-heavy sport. Six or seven teams have dominated the past 10 years. This is great if youâÄôre a Lakers fan. If you follow the Timberwolves? Not so much.

When LeBron James decided he wanted to live it up with fellow superstar Dwayne Wade and the worldâÄôs tallest invisible man Chris Bosh, he opened up a new way of thinking about free agency. Good players have long realized the benefits of joining other good players: Shaq and Kobe, Jordan and Pippen, Bird and McHale. However, by choosing Miami and its famous nightlife over, say, Chicago, Lebron introduced a new factor in free agency. Location matters more now than it ever has. Fans have already seen the fallout of this with Carmelo Anthony refusing to sign a contract anywhere but New York, essentially forcing DenverâÄôs hand.

If the trend continues, not only will cities like Los Angeles and Miami remain perennial contenders every year, but teams such as our beloved Timberwolves or the Milwaukee Bucks will not be able to land big-name stars based on a factor completely out of the teamâÄôs control. The last thing the NBA needs is less parity, and with superstar free agents now putting a lot of weight on location, this is exactly what fans will see.

Meanwhile, in professional baseball, there will always be some parity in the league because of the extensive farm system. Although the Yankees will always outspend everyone, teams like San Francisco and our Minnesota Twins have shown that you can develop a team that can beat the Yankees without spending like them.

Baseball has been lagging behind in national attention for a couple years now; however, the other major leagues have run into a couple huge issues that might have very serious side effects.

Due to situations out of its control, MLB may once again become AmericaâÄôs Game. All it has to do is stay around.

 

John Grimley welcomes comments at [email protected].