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LOOKING FOR DIRECTION : Lack of Labor Agreement Prevents Baseball From Making Real Comeback and Reaching Out to Fans of Future

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The New York Yankees, arguably baseball’s most renowned franchise, return to the World Series tonight for the first time in 15 years.

That’s 15 years of contentiousness and convulsion in baseball--with more on the horizon, perhaps.

What will baseball look like in another 15 years?

Will there be a commissioner? Will there be a labor agreement? Will a pitcher win the Cy Young Award with an earned-run average of 10.25 as baseball tries to stock 36 teams stretching from Toronto to Taiwan?

Forget that a 12-year-old named Jeffrey Maier won Game 1 of the American League championship series for the Yankees.

Will that 12-17 age group, baseball’s ticket buyers of the future, give up the MTV they sometimes prefer now for the opportunity to see an MVP?

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Kids and teens.

Some label it baseball’s biggest problem, next to the long and bitter quest for a labor agreement, the absence of which continues to hamper marketing approaches to that young audience. Has baseball reached a crossroads in the comeback from the strike of 1994-95?

Acting Commissioner Bud Selig continues to say that his sport is in the early stages of a powerful recovery. Perhaps, but the next 15 years--15 months, maybe--seem to hinge on an elusive labor peace.

On the eve of the Series, negotiators met throughout the day Friday. There is a possibility Selig may join them over the weekend, trying to complete a deal that has basically been in place since early August. If it doesn’t happen, if the situation erupts again--with the players striking again next spring in response to management’s possible attempt to unilaterally implement new work rules--there may be no recovery.

“The consequences of not having an agreement are horrific and unacceptable,” said Gregory B. Murphy, who became president and chief executive officer of the newly created Major League Baseball Enterprises in June.

Murphy, 47, was most recently president and chief executive officer of Kraft Foods Bakery Cos. He was hired to fill baseball’s gaping vacuum as head of marketing and television strategies--an area he called “woefully short of shaping an image” for the “sleeping giant” that is major league baseball.

However, the process of shaping that image, of attracting corporate sponsors and developing a partnership with the players’ union to facilitate reaching that kids-teens audience he called “strategically our biggest and most important problem” can move only in “centimeters” without a labor agreement.

“Any businessman would tell you he wants a stable labor environment in which to invest,” Murphy said. “I’m not saying that companies won’t invest, that we can’t retain the partners we already have, but they’re going to do it cautiously [as long as there is the possibility of another strike].

“The most important thing we need to do is use our stars to establish an emotional connection with young fans.

“Instead of hearing them say, ‘I want to be like Mike [Michael Jordan],’ we need them to say, ‘I want to be like Ken [Griffey] or like Mo [Vaughn] or like Frank [Thomas], the Big Hurt.’

“We need to be able to work together with the players’ union to do that, and obviously the first step is an agreement.”

Selig agreed.

“There’s no question it’s been eroding for 20 or 25 years,” he said of baseball’s approach to younger fans. “People told me it was happening in the ‘70s and I didn’t believe them.

“The conventional wisdom was that football and basketball were faster paced and more attuned to young people. I’m not sure I accept that, but it’s true we didn’t reach out and aggressively market. It’s a situation that needs to be corrected and will be. We need to finish the [labor] deal and get on with that.”

Sources say the labor agreement could be completed in a few hours, but a dissident group of owners, led by Jerry Reinsdorf of the Chicago White Sox, has thwarted Selig’s attempt to develop a consensus. Selig has not taken an assertive stance in pursuit of the 21 votes needed to ratify, possibly, it has been speculated, because he does not want Reinsdorf to form a coalition that could block his eventual attempt to remain as full-time commissioner, a scenario Selig vehemently denies.

“The clubs need to come to their own conclusion on this,” he said. “It’s too important to do otherwise.”

Both sides say the current proposal has a shelf life of 10 more days at most. Winter work rules governing free agency and other roster decisions kick in five days after the World Series ends, meaning baseball would have to live with the status quo for another year.

If the current proposal collapses--and along with it such items as revenue sharing for the small markets, a luxury tax to control large-market spending and interleague play in 1997--the dissidents would be certain to return with a tougher proposal aimed at implementation, challenging the union to strike.

A veteran player agent who has been lobbying both sides said baseball “can’t possibly absorb another hit, but if the dissidents have their way, we’re looking at another cold war turned hot, and all of the peripheral people, the sponsors and potential sponsors, are certain to take a hike with their money. The national pastime will be the national wastime. I mean, football and basketball have long passed baseball, and hockey is on the move.”

The absence of a labor agreement and revenue sharing for the small markets would also widen a disparity shown by the fact that three of the four highest-salaried teams reached league championship series. Selig called it the realization of baseball’s worst fear, but it is also a fact that every team except the Florida Marlins has reached the playoffs in the last 15 years, suggesting competitive balance.

Nevertheless, another hot war would be devastating while baseball is still digging out from the last.

The progress has been positive, with Selig labeling it phenomenal from where baseball was a year ago.

The positives:

--Attendance this season was up 6% from ’95, when it was down 14%. The 1996 average crowd of 26,899 was the fifth-highest in history. The 28 clubs averaged 2.2 million.

--Licensing sales are expected to be up 35% after falling 45% from the 1993 record of $2.5 billion.

--A network consortium of NBC, ESPN, Fox and Liberty ignored the downside and paid $1.7 billion for TV rights.

Much has been made about lower ratings, particularly in the playoffs, but it is difficult to draw a comparison to the regionalization concept of the Baseball Network, whose ratings were inflated, for example, by televising a division series between Cincinnati and Los Angeles only to those markets.

All of the 1996 playoff games have been televised nationally, some aimed at reaching school children in mid- to late afternoon.

The result: Ratings are down but more people have watched the games, according to baseball figures.

Said Ed Goren, executive producer for Fox: “Our first-year involvement supports the belief that there has been an erosion [in baseball’s following], but this is a five-year process. You don’t lose an audience overnight and get it back overnight.

“If we get a six- or seven-game World Series, I’m willing to predict our ratings will be the highest in four years, easily. Up until the Olympics, our ratings were equal to those of CBS three years ago, and that’s with re-acclimating people to the game-of-the-week concept.”

Baseball doomsayers are quick to suggest the sport hasn’t reached the kids-teens market, although more youngsters are participating in Little Little and other organized programs than ever before.

According to Sports Business Daily, for example, the viewership by young people 12-17 of Monday’s Atlanta Braves-St. Louis Cardinals game was 2.3% compared to 7.2% for the Green Bay Packers-San Francisco 49ers game of that night.

However, the ratings for Fox’s highly acclaimed pregame children’s show, “In Your Zone,” have matched those of the NBA’s long-established “Inside Stuff,” and Rich Lukar, executive director of the ESPN Chilton Sports Poll, said that according to his demographic studies of 1,000 respondents monthly, viewing and attendance patterns in the 12-17 group have gone up impressively.

According to Chilton, 17.7% of people in the 12-17 age bracket nationally and 25.5% in the 18-34 group attended at least one baseball game in the last 12 months. Those figures are up from 12.8% and 13.2% last year. The 1996 attendance figures for those groups also are higher than those in the last full season of the NFL, NBA or NHL.

For those who watched at least one game on TV, the Chilton figures for 12-17 are 57.8% and for 18-34 are 56.3%, and those are higher than for any sport except football, where the comparative numbers are 65.6% and 62.6%.

“The assumption that baseball isn’t a sport of youth just isn’t true,” Lukar said. “We see the biggest and fastest growth in that group.

“In fact, I’d say that the number of people baseball could count on as fans is back to what it was before the strike and that the attendance and viewing numbers will be back to normal in two years, barring another labor stoppage. It’s like a strip mall. The parking lot is full, but not everyone is in shopping yet.

“Baseball is a game of atmosphere and ambience. Maybe it will take a warm summer night to get those people out of their cars and into the stores, or the local team to be back in contention, but I look at the numbers and feel very good about baseball and very positive about the things Greg Murphy is doing.”

Murphy is trying to shore up sponsors, meet potential new ones, visit the teams, develop a relationship with his counterparts in the players’ union. Some of his projects are in the formative stage or about to be announced.

The new marketing head can’t do anything about baseball’s perceived lack of leadership and can’t drag owners to the table and order them to approve the labor deal. He can only tell them that their sport needs it and to worry about the consequences if it doesn’t happen.

There is also little he can do about escalating ticket prices, which make it difficult for some families to take the children regularly.

A spokesman for the youth-oriented Walt Disney Co. said an August survey of Anaheim Stadium fans showed a desire among families for more accessible players. The Disney-owned Angels will try to accommodate fans on that score through community clinics and other programs.

“Fans are sitting out there saying, ‘This isn’t the house that Ruth built, it’s the house that we built, and you’ve forgotten about that,’ ” Murphy said.

“They’re angry, worried, feeling disenfranchised. The kids are saying we’re not cool, not in.

“The truth is, we’re not competitive with the NBA and NFL in many ways. We have to develop a relevant strategy that reaches kids in school, in the inner city, through the Internet. It’s a tremendous challenge and opportunity, and everyone I talk to is excited about it.”

The potential, of course, is enormous. The American and National leagues drew more than 60 million this year. The minors drew more than 30 million.

The NBA and NFL (playing considerably fewer games) draw about 18 million each a year, but have marketing and public relations staffs that far outnumber baseball’s.

Oh, yes.

They also have full-time commissioners in their New York offices and labor agreements with their players.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

WORLD SERIES

Today--Atlanta (Smoltz, 24-8) at New York (Pettitte, 21-8), 5 p.m.

Sunday--Atlanta (Neagle, 16-9) at New York (Key, 12-11), 4:30 p.m.

Tuesday--New York (Cone, 7-2) at Atlanta (Maddux, 15-11), 5:15 p.m.

Wednesday--at Atlanta, 5:15 p.m.

*Thursday--at Atlanta, 5:15 p.m.

*Oct. 26--at New York, 5 p.m.

*Oct. 27--at New York, 4:30 p.m.

All games on Channel 11; *--If necessary

Brand-New Ballgame

World Series ratings are respectable, but nowhere near the blockbuster numbers they were in the early ‘80s. And attendance, while up over last year, has dropped almost 4,500 per game since 1993.

Broadcast TV ratings*

‘96 (Fox): 2.7

‘95 (The Baseball Network): 5.8

‘94 (The Baseball Network): 6.2

‘93 (CBS): 3.8

*Each rating point equals 1% of all TV households

World Series ratings

1980: 32.8

1981*: 30.0

1982: 28.0

1983: 23.3

1984: 22.9

1985: 25.3

1986: 28.6

1987: 24.0

1988: 23.9

1989**: 16.4

1990: 20.8

1991: 24.0

1992: 20.2

1993: 17.3

1994***

1995: 19.5

*

* Strike season

** Earthquake series

*** Canceled


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