Monday, January 15, 2007

"Lazzari's Sports Roundup" ---- 01-20-07

A Whole New Ballgame

Yes, we're just a few weeks away from that special time of year--pitchers and catchers reporting to spring training in order to shed the winter "rust"; a new baseball season will begin its infancy before maturing in October. The off-season has seen its usual share of personnel moves and newsmakers; more important, I believe it's come time for some of us to ponder the future of Doubleday's game and wonder what will become of the game we once revered so dearly.

When I think of baseball right now, I DO NOT think of the Cardinals' unexpected run to a world championship in '06. Instead, I think of the outrageous $126 million deal signed by pitcher Barry Zito--the newest San Francisco Giant--or the almost laughable one-year, $16 million contract the Yankees gave to an aging Andy Pettitte. Overkill? Surely--on the verge of being criminal. I think of teams raising ticket prices, snobbish luxury boxes, and concession prices resembling menus at your favorite high-end steak house. Although revenues may not show it and seats in some places still get filled, our "American pastime" is becoming a shell of what it once was, folks, and my question is THIS: What will the game be like twenty-five years from now?

Contracts like the ones cited have now caused many of the TRUE, "blue-collar" fans to watch the games solely on TV; financially, a trip to the ballpark these days is equivalent to a vacation for many families. Yours truly has not seen a big league game (in person) in years--partly due to finances, partly due to disgust. Some hard questions to consider in relation to baseball's future: Will enough Americans support a game that will be played mainly by foreigners? Will the offspring of the "corporate suits" that currently line box seats these days have enough genuine interest in the game to keep turnstiles spinning? Will baseball interest overall fall further behind other sports due to its greed and fan alienation?

The dramatic increase in foreign players performing in America over the last few years is astounding; a major reason for this is the current disinterest in baseball on the part of the American child. Video/computer games have slowly replaced the old schoolyard stickball game; those children who DO have a passing interest in baseball are unable to attend live games due to financial concerns. The popularity of soccer in the U.S. is also a factor. In addition, the lack of adequate space in the inner city has those 'would-be' baseball participants looking elsewhere athletically. It's no wonder that a growing number of the best big league ballplayers first honed their skills far away from American soil.

Taking affordability into consideration, it surely seems only the "well-to-do" may be able to see live baseball a quarter century from now; will those spoiled children of the current luxury box holders continue to attend games--for NO other reason than to say they were PRESENT at a corporate gathering? Perhaps--but it may be a crowd of individuals who wouldn't know a stolen base from a submarine base.

Sadly, the exorbitant salaries now given to players--in one way or another--have alienated many of the "hard-core" fans; pick the reason: high ticket prices, high cable bills, souvenir prices the "average Joe" would balk at in favor of contributing to their child's college education. Where are we headed, my friends?

Connecticut businessman Tony DeAngelo, a trust advisor and lifelong Yankee fan, is keenly aware of business economics--and what may become of baseball. "It's simple," he told me. "If the fan interest is not there, the advertisers won't advertise. If there's no advertising, the games don't get televised. If there's no TV, interest wanes." He added, "It's been the case with EVERY industry; diversions/more choices mean less people to support any one thing. I believe what you may see with baseball is a smaller amount of teams charging $500 for a typical seat. As far as a future, disinterested, corporate audience is concerned, you may see people like Paris Hilton's daughter throwing out the first pitch--for no other reason than she's Paris Hilton's daughter. Sadly, it may come down to watching baseball on pay-per-view."

Yes, it's people in my age category--40 and above--who seem most affected by the corporate entity that baseball has truly become. Why? Because we're able to remember when most guys played the game simply for the genuine love of it; however, we've also been privy to blown-up druggies and many union-influenced phonies--true "businessmen" who carry briefcases to the ballpark while, at the same time, talking on cell phones to slimy agents. Sorry, I prefer the former.

The guess here is that, a few decades from now, we WILL see what Mr. DeAngelo astutely alluded to above: a smaller, select, paying, corporate crowd--the majority of which is devoid of true baseball knowledge. The American TV audience undoubtedly WILL dwindle; it HAS to due to the sociological factors mentioned above. Yes, baseball WILL survive--although in a totally different form here in America. The time will come--and the evidence is already sadly mounting--when a baseball crowd will more closely resemble a boxing crowd; it will be considered an EVENT--and no longer a "game." Let's enjoy it while we can.

Bob Lazzari

Reprinted by permission of the Valley Times.


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