Wednesday, December 18, 2013

MLB Revenues Are Large

And the numbers are in. for 2013, Major League Baseball revenues crossed the magical $8B barrier, up from $7.5B the year before. And with new television contracts kicking in, that number's potentially going to rise above $9B for 2014.

That would be "B", as in "Billion".

Now, it's accepted wisdom in certain circles that Baseball Is Dying Because It Is Not Football (and steroids and stuff), with adherents of this theory pointing to A)television ratings and B)the fact that nobody touches the NFL for revenue. Which is true, but which completely misses the point. 

One, 8 billion dollars is still an awful lot of money. Two, an annual increase of revenues on the order of half a billion is also something that most businesses would take, no questions asked. Three, making neener-neener-neener noises about baseball television ratings is to fundamentally misunderstand what's going on here.

The injection of cash into the sport is largely driven by television, the same thing that spurred Rutgers to join the Big X Where X > 10 and the NFL to move Monday Night Football to basic cable. With the explosion of alternate viewing options - Netflix, Hulu, etc. - live programming is something that is increasingly valuable to television networks. Why? Because for the moment, at least, live sporting events are things you pretty much have to tune in live for. And even with its lower per-game rating, a baseball season offers an awful lot of programming. Baseball = 162 games as 3 hours each; football = 16 games at 3 hours each. Math is hard, but it's easy to tell what provides more can't-get-it-elsewhere programming.

Networks are willing to pay for that; teams are able to put together cash cow regional sports networks - and interest in baseball-on-tv remains largely regional, which is one of the reasons national games don't do quite as well - based on that premise. 

And then there's MLB's online media arm, which is miles ahead of anybody else's in the sports world.   
There's a reason other leagues ask baseball to run their online presences for them, which is, as you might expect, a little bit of a revenue generator as well. Short version: when viewing habits finally do switch, MLB will be there, waiting.

All of which makes it really hard to continue the "baseball is dying!" meme with a straight face. Yes, straight up television ratings are down. But they're down for just about everything. Yes, attendance was down in 2013, which only made it the 6th-highest year in history (and 75% of the downturn could be laid at the feet of the Miami Marlins, who did everything but punch fans in the throat as they wandered into the stadium). 22 teams had 2 million or more fans go through the turnstiles; that's a lot of overpriced ice cream sundaes in souvenir batting helmets and $10 beers.  

Yes, baseball has problems. It has a nasty habit of presenting itself poorly, one exacerbated by a sports media that's eager to jump on the "more trouble for baseball" narrative. Stadium issues are real for a couple of teams. Jeffrey Loria remains a festering boil on the butt of the sport.

(Aside: I firmly believe, incidentally, that part of this is due to the fact that Commissioner Bud Selig is a nerd, and jock-sniffers hate nerds. Roger Goodell may be a deranged autocrat with a leadership style cribbed from Joffrey Baratheon, but he looks like someone you'd play touch football with in a beer commercial. Gary Bettman's invisible. David Stern wasn't an athlete, but he had insane charisma and presence. Selig comes across like the captain of the chess team wearing his varsity sweater to the 20th reunion, and that's the sort of thing the jockocracy pounces on.)

But the game certainly isn't dying. With revenue numbers like this, it won't be for a good long while. And anyone who insists that it is, evidence be damned, is just being silly.

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