Baseball Faces Fewer Fans, More Player-Owner Demands

IS baseball in danger of striking out with the American public? This is not a moot, off-season question. Without even a pitch on the way, the sport is facing one of its most challenging times.

"Baseball is at a crossroads," says Douglas Moss, president of the MSG Network, which recently paid the New York Yankees $50 million for local broadcast rights.

This week, at a discussion sponsored by The Sporting News and Adidas, baseball executives and commentators agreed that the sport faces some hard innings:

* Baseball revenues are declining. Last year, fewer fans went to the games, partly because of the recession but also because they are "disgusted with all this bickering over how millionaires divide up the money," says Richard Ravitch, president of the Major League Baseball Player Relations Committee. The committee represents the owners in their negotiations with the players. Mr. Ravitch, who claims to have seen the owners' balance sheets, says the clubs lost money last year, are likely to lose money this

year, and by 1994 "face a complete disaster."

If times are so bad, why have the owners spent $291 million on 24 free agents so far this winter? "Even a condemned man is entitled to a last dinner," Ravitch says. There are plenty of players for another course, with 73 free agents still unsigned - including Mark McGuire and Reuben Sierra of the Oakland As and Jeff Reardon of the Atlanta Braves.

* Fan demographics are not positive for advertisers. Younger fans are not attracted to the sport. "It is alone in the three major sports in losing audience in the 12-to-17 age group," says Dick Ebersol, the president of NBC Sports. As a result of the shifting demographics, "Advertisers are not lining up to pay a premium for baseball," says Mr. Ebersol. Making baseball faster

The sport has to attract younger fans by making it faster and more accessible, he says. For example, World Series games should be moved to an earlier starting time so nine-year-olds can watch an entire game.

* Congress is considering revoking baseball's antitrust exemption. On Dec. 10, Sen. Howard Metzenbaum (D) of Pennsylvania, chairman of the Senate antitrust subcommittee, held a hearing to discuss the firing of former baseball commissioner Fay Vincent, complaints about racism in baseball, and the owners' veto of the sale of the San Francisco Giants to Tampa/St. Petersburg.

At the hearing, Sen. Connie Mack (R) of Florida (grandson and namesake of the legendary owner-manager of the old Philadelphia Athletics baseball club), lambasted the "Barons of Baseball" for refusing the sale. "The antitrust laws must be removed, the Congress must act," Senator Mack said. Jeff Walter, projects director for Mack, says Congress is leaning toward eliminating the exemption.

If the antitrust exemption is eliminated, Ravitch predicts a period of "chaos" where the owners of clubs in small markets will try to sell to owners in larger markets. Currently, the 28 owners can veto the sale of any club. Arguing against continuing the antitrust exemption, Don Fehr, the executive director and general counsel of the Major League Baseball Players Association asks, "Does it satisfy the public policy of the country to have 28 owners deciding what city loses a team?"

On Dec. 14, the Player Relations Committee, composed of four experts named by clubs and players, suggested a greater sharing of revenue among the big and small teams. Some smaller teams have revenues of $40 million a year, while larger clubs may make $100 million per year. Owners want to renegotiate early

On top of all these issues, the owners notified the players that they intend to open negotiations one year early on their four-year contract. "The owners said there are so many different points to negotiate, the sooner they start, the better the chance of a settlement before the 1994 season starts," says John Rawlings, editor of The Sporting News.

Mr. Rawlings says there is some concern that the owners might lock out the players this year, or the players might go on strike before the playoffs begin. One issue will be salary equity: 13 percent of the players now get 50 percent of the compensation. "It creates tremendous pressure and conflict within the sport itself," Ravitch says.

Pressure will be on both sides to reach an agreement. The clubs are in the last year of a four-year, $1.46 billion contract with CBS-TV. A strike or lockout would not enhance the value of broadcasting the games. "No one is advantaged by a work-stoppage at this point," Ravitch says. And players realize that millionaires like themselves won't get much sympathy on the picket lines.

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