Bigger Than Balco -- Baseball's Unnoticed Revolution

01.25.2005 | Tim Marchman | Sports

From The New York Sun

If you asked the first 10 baseball fans you encountered in New York to name the most important deal struck between Major League Baseball and the Major League Baseball Players Association during the last week, all of them would say, “The steroids deal, of course!” Perhaps they would be right; but it seems unlikely to me.

More significant in the long term, I’m fairly sure, will be the $50 million agreement reached this week between MLB.com and the union. It was noted, by those few who noted it at all, because of its implications for fantasy baseball games. In the past, the union has licensed the rights for the games run by groups like Yahoo! and Sports Illustrated; MLB.com now has control over those rights, and could conceivably deny them to competitors, leaving MLB as the sole purveyor of fantasy baseball.

That’s only one part of the deal, though. MLB.com - which is owned by, but distinct from, MLB - now has access to player rights not only for online gaming, but for all online content, in addition to the rights to wireless games. It will also take over the players’ Web site, www.BigLeaguers.com, and will probably integrate it into the main MLB.com site.

On its own, a deal that might affect fantasy baseball and shows some signs of cooperation between labor and management seems unspectacular. Lay out some of the other pieces of the puzzle to which it belongs, and the venture becomes more intriguing.

For starters, there is the October deal that licensed MLB broadcast rights to the XM satellite service over the next 11 years for $650 million. There is also the recent deal between MLB.com and Minor League Baseball under which MLB.com will run the official websites of the minor leagues, and serve as their statistician. This should eventually include Web-based broadcasts of all minor league games similar to the currently available MLB packages; as early as this year, fans will be able to track some minor league games online, batter-by-batter.

Further, there is MLB.com’s ongoing development of a raft of evaluative systems that will replace statistics as we know them. In last year’s fine book “The Numbers Game,” by Alan Schwarz, MLB.com executives spoke of a network of computerized cameras that will remove guesswork from defensive evaluations by capturing and analyzing every play a fielder makes. These, and similar offensive statistics that could make on-base average as quaint as the RBI as a measure of performance, will be available to the interested public - for a fee.

Tying all of these forays into modern technology together is a 2001 agreement stating that new-media revenues will be shared out equally among the 30 teams. That $650 million XM satellite deal is responsible for some of the inanity that’s been seen on the free agent market this year. Teams have had no trouble finding ways to spend the extra $2 million in their pockets.

It doesn’t take a visionary to imagine what will happen in the near future, when broadband renders cable and broadcast as we know them obsolete and, not incidentally, replaces them as the game’s primary generators of revenue. Baseball will then have something very near income parity without needing a salary cap to achieve it. (Look for union leaders to begin loudly pointing this out in 2005, with labor negotiations on their way next year and owners showing no signs of lessened enthusiasm for a cap.)

It does take some special vision, however, to do what MLB.com is doing. Right now, the ground is being laid for a fully integrated system that will allow fans all over the world to follow players from rookie ball to the majors, with full cooperation between players and ownership in the promotion of this venture. Sophisticated new statistics, fantasy games, live game updates (can’t forget about the gamblers, after all), and things no one has yet thought of will all be centrally run and centrally maintained.

Baseball could get away with something a lot less ambitious than this. It’s to the credit of management, the union, and the minor leagues that a foundation is being laid with the potential to make the way we follow the game today seem as ridiculously outmoded as reading box scores or watching men with sticks push figures representing runners around bases on a big board, as was done in the 1920s.

It’s good to be wary of rapturous futurism, though. Reliable minor league statistics are a valuable thing - the wholesale theft and pirating of these statistics has created disincentives for anyone to keep good records of fielding, groundball/flyball ratios, and other granular data - but if they come at the cost of MLB.com eventually muscling out independent organizations like Baseball America, will that be a good thing as well? Advanced fielding data is the grail for many of the game’s enthusiasts, but how open will these new systems be, and to what uses will researchers be allowed to put the information?

And ultimately, is a monopoly over the dissemination of the game’s knowledge, no matter its wondrous side benefits, a good thing for MLB to have?

That these questions can even be raised says a great deal about what the answers might be. MLB.com is, as of now, probably the crown jewel of central baseball, and its autonomy from the commissioner’s office is one of the great marvels of the game. It is also one of the great mysteries.

Equally clear are the dangers of centralization. Avoiding everything from homogenization to the possible privacy violations inherent in one body serving as the clearinghouse for all information related to the game seems right now to depend more on the good people running MLB.com than on any institutional strictures.

There’s no need to be unnecessarily worried about what could happen; but we could do with a bit less talk about Balco right now, and a bit more about the future of the game.



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