Don’t get worked up about the television ratings

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Every year we see it: a regular season NFL game beats the crap out of a baseball playoff game in the ratings. It happened last night with Indianapolis-Washington nearly doubling the numbers of the Giants-Phillies game. It may even happen tonight with a boring Titans-Jags game facing off against the Yankees and Rangers.  There are, and will continue to be, people who read a ton into this, but I think it’s kind of meaningless. Why? Because as far as the television business goes, baseball and football are different beasts.

Football is an exclusively national sport, television wise. Aside from preseason games everything is handled by the big networks. Yes, they provide regional coverage of some games on Sunday afternoons, but the Sunday night and Monday night games — and, for that matter, most of the late Sunday afternoon games — are national things. Baseball, on the other hand, is primarily regional thing until the playoffs start. There are like 90 games a week during the regular season. A handful are national broadcasts. The vast majority are on RSNs or local affiliates of one form of another, broadcasting to a limited area.

When the playoffs start, baseball is basically changing its model, and is going all-national, all the time. Fans of the participating teams are going to follow, of course, but for fans who have grown accustomed to understanding televised baseball as a vehicle through which one roots for the local nine, it’s a tall order to expect them to tune in. If football were broadcast in a pattern like this — an impossibility, I realize because of the limited number of games — you’d see a similar pattern.

While I’m sure Bud Selig would love it if baseball games got football-sized ratings, he and others in charge of the health of the game likely know that’s never going to happen. They know this because  baseball on TV is apples and football on TV is oranges.

MLB Network airs segment listing “good” and “bad” $100 million-plus contracts

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On Wednesday evening, Charlie Marlow of KTVI FOX 2 News St. Louis posted a couple of screencaps from a segment MLB Network aired about $100 million-plus contracts that have been sigbned. The list of “bad” contracts, unsurprisingly, is lengthier than the list of “good” contracts.

As Mike Gianella of Baseball Prospectus pointed out, it is problematic for a network owned by Major League Baseball to air a segment criticizing its employees for making too much seemingly unearned money. There’s a very clear conflict of interest, so one is certainly not getting a fair view of the situation. MLB, of course, can do what it wants with its network, but it can also be criticized. MLB Network would never air a similar segment in which it listed baseball’s “good” and “bad” owners and how much money they’ve undeservedly taken. Nor would MLB Network ever run a segment naming the hundreds of players who are not yet eligible for arbitration whose salaries are decided for them by their teams, often making the major league minimum ($545,000) or just above it. Similarly, MLB Network would also never think of airing a segment in which the pay of minor league players, many of whom make under $10,000 annually, is highlighted.

We’re now past the halfway point in January and many free agents still remain unsigned. It’s unprecedented. A few weeks ago, I looked just at the last handful of years and found that, typically, six or seven of the top 10 free agents signed by the new year. We’re still at two of 10 — same as a few weeks ago — and that’s only if you consider Carlos Santana a top-10 free agent, which is debatable. It’s a complex issue, but part of it certainly is the ubiquity of analytics in front offices, creating homogeneity in thinking. A consequence of that is everyone now being aware that big free agent contracts haven’t panned out well; it’s a topic of conversation that everyone can have and understand now. Back in 2010, I upset a lot of people by suggesting that Ryan Howard’s five-year, $125 million contract with the Phillies wouldn’t pan out well. Those people mostly cited home runs and RBI and got mad when I cited WAR and wOBA and defensive metrics. Now, many of those same people are wary of signing free agent first baseman Eric Hosmer and they now cite WAR, wOBA, and the various defensive metrics.

The public’s hyper-sensitivity to the viability of long-term free agent contracts — thanks in part to segments like the aforementioned — is a really bad trend if you’re a player, agent, or just care about labor in general. The tables have become very much tilted in favor of ownership over labor over the last decade and a half. Nathaniel Grow of FanGraphs pointed out in March 2015 that the players’ share of total league revenues peaked in 2002 at 56 percent, but declined all the way to 38 percent in 2014. The current trend of teams signing their talented players to long-term contract extensions before or during their years of arbitration eligibility — before they have real leverage — as well as teams abstaining from signing free agents will only serve to send that percentage further down.

Craig has written at great length about the rather serious problem the MLBPA has on its hands. Solving this problem won’t be easy and may require the threat of a strike, or actually striking. As Craig mentioned, that would mean getting the players all on the same page on this issue, which would require some work. MLB hasn’t dealt with a strike since 1994 and it’s believed that it caused a serious decline in interest among fans, so it’s certainly something that would get the owners’ attention. The MLBPA may also need to consider replacing union head Tony Clark with someone with a serious labor background. Among the issues the union could focus on during negotiations for the next collective bargaining agreement: abolishing the draft and getting rid of the arbitration system. One thing is for sure: the players are not in a good spot now, especially when the league has its own network on which it propagandizes against them.