Monday, September 30, 2013

New York Times State of Mind

Word spread around the blogosphere pretty quickly on Sunday - the New York Times had written an editorial saying baseball was becoming irrelevant.

I had visions of the editorial board of the Old Gray Lady of journalism sitting around the office talking about that particular issue. Then I found out that the "editorial" was actually an op-ed piece, meaning it was one person's opinion. In other words, it wasn't the entire newspaper staff that believes baseball has lost its luster. The person in question who does is Jonathan Mahler. You can read his article by clicking here. I'll wait.

The immediate reaction of most people to the headline, even before they read the story, was that this was typical New York City-think. The Yankees had a year to forget, with its longtime stars either leaving or thinking about it. The Mets continued their rebuilding plan for another year, meaning they weren't very good.

I'm not sure how to judge if baseball has fallen out of the national conversation, as Mahler claims. Attendance seems to be quite good, competitive balance is at record levels. Great talents are arriving in droves, including Matt Harvey of the Mets to go along with names like Machado and Trout.

It's tough to argue that television ratings for the World Series, etc., are what they used to be, because they aren't. Yes, I know in a 300-channel universe (for those silly enough to pay for all those channels), there are more ways than ever to divide the audience. So everyone's numbers are worse than they used to be.

Here's what you need to know about that: The ratings for Breaking Bad's finale Sunday smashed records - 10.3 million viewers. The buzz about that show was terrific. Care to guess how many people saw me on "Jeopardy" in 1998? About 15 million.

I do have a theory, though, on what has happened to television ratings for the big events in baseball, basketball and hockey.

We're in an era where virtually every team in those sports has a connection to a television outlet. Here, the Sabres' games are carried on MSG. The Yankees and Nets are on the YES Network, although I'm still trying to figure out how one channel becomes a network. You can watch virtually every game of your favorite team these days.

Contrast that to the "good old days." In New York City, a good chunk of the games of the Yankees and Mets were on home TV, but that was relatively rare. In places outside the major metro areas - and remember we only had 16 teams in 14 cities in 1960 - the Saturday game of the week was pretty much. That made the World Series a major event because you could actually watch a game - well, you could if you were home during the day before night games arrived in the Series in 1971. And if you didn't want to watch those games, well, there were only a couple of other choices on the dial.

Hockey used to be even more restricted in its broadcasting. After 1967, you could get a game of the week on CBS and NBC if you didn't live near a team, and that was it - provided your local station carried it. Many in the South didn't. That even included the playoffs. It's different now. Most people have a rooting interest in a team, and after seeing three games a week for 26 weeks more or less, they may not be in too much of a hurry to see teams they don't care about if the Sabres aren't in the postseason.

Mahler argues that baseball was slow to adapt to changing times coming out of the Fifties, and lost its place to the NFL as the nation's top spectator sport. No argument here. Football also is a great sport for television, and a great sport for gambling, and those two factors have grown hand-in-hand. It's also a once-a-week commitment, event programming that makes a huge difference in interest for a particular game.

One other point here - Mahler has this to say after pointing out that college football and basketball been fed increased interest in their professional counterparts: "Why has college baseball failed to attract any meaningful interest? Mostly because there are already so many professional baseball games to watch."

You mean there aren't many college football and basketball games on television? In football, there's a game on virtually every night of the week, and a couple of dozen on Saturday. When January arrives, it's tough to avoid college basketball. Baseball is a different animal, with some top high school players siphoned off into the minor leagues. and without the tradition the other college sports have. It's apples and oranges.

And for the argument that the baseball draft has much more interest than football and basketball - let those two sports draft 18-year-olds out of high school, and see how much of an event it is.

Baseball isn't in the same spot as it had many years ago, but that's all right. It's still doing quite well by most metrics. You don't have to be a guest columnist for the Times to know that.

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