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The 2017 World Series: when the advertising Rubicon was crossed

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I am not one of those people who think that advertising is inherently evil. Not by a long shot. Advertising helps pay my salary and, for my entire life, has made most of the entertainment I consume possible, often free of charge to me. It’s a fact of life in our society. Sometimes it’s annoying, sometimes it’s entertaining. In certain, narrow cases I worry that it’s destructive, but for the most part I think it’s benign. Everyone’s gotta pay the bills, professional sports and professional sports media included. Most of us have developed pretty decent filters and a healthy skepticism when it comes to commercials.

That said, I feel like we’ve crossed some sort of line with this year’s World Series when it comes to advertising. The line which, generally speaking, had kept the advertising largely separate from the game itself.

I and basically everyone watching the game at home first noticed this last night, soon after the first pitch. Check out the YouTube Ad placement:

That “play” button is smack dab in the middle of the screen, just as it would be for an actual YouTube video. Heck, when a right-handed batter was up, the thing looked like it was actually hovering in front of the umpire’s shoulder or catcher’s head. It was unquestionably designed to be there and YouTube is likely pleased that everyone was talking about it during the game and continues to talk about it today. For fans, however, it was distracting, taking us out of the action for a moment or two on multiple occasions. It may have made me think of YouTube more, but it made me think less of them and less of Major League Baseball for cluttering up my viewing experience.

Later in the game we saw what, I think anyway, was the first visual, in-game, split-screen advertisement in the World Series. Yes, announcers have read promos for years and in-game events ranging from pitching changes to pinch hits to stolen bases to grand slams have long had distinct sponsors. Likewise, almost all local broadcasts have branded graphics which, briefly anyway, are superimposed over the action. Last night, however, there were mid-inning ads for Wendy’s. They took up more than half of the screen, with the game “action” (they occurred during mound visits and brief delays) relegated to a small box on the left.

Like I said, native advertising in a game is not new — last year T-mobile sponsored mid-game breakaways to the studio hosts during the Series — but this split-screen thing seemed to take it to a different level. It wasn’t terribly distracting. Indeed, if baseball wanted to do more of these ads in lieu of the extended commercial breaks we see in the postseason I’d be OK with it. It’s always the case, however, that new forms of advertising are never an “or” proposition. They’re an “and” proposition. As long as companies will pay for the time, we’ll see long breaks and the in-game ads.

The final bit of creeping advertising I noticed is far more troubling to me and, in many ways, rather pathetic. Here are two passages from Game 1 stories on MLB.com, written by two of the very best baseball writers around: Richard Justice and my former NBC colleague Joe Posnanski, respectively:

Verlander has started eight games for his new team, and the Astros have won them all. He pitched once in relief, and Houston won that one, too. Now, after a 3-1 loss on Tuesday in Game 1 of the World Series presented by YouTube TV, the Astros are turning to Verlander again.

and

Yes, Kershaw’s destiny always pointed to here, to Koufax’s mound (albeit somewhat lower), for Game 1 of the World Series presented by YouTube TV, a 3-1 Dodgers win. But the journey turned out quite a bit different than Kershaw expected.

Did you know you were watching “The World Series Presented by YouTube TV,” or were you so dumb that you thought you were just watching the plain old “World Series?” By the same token did you know you were watching the “NLCS Presented by Camping World?” Because you were. If you were ignorant of this you can be forgiven, however, because unlike me you don’t get the MLB press releases announcing the league’s corporate sponsorships.

If companies want to give MLB money for naming rights to a playoff series, MLB can name them whatever they want. Seeing those sponsorships in editorial content at MLB.com, however, is a different matter. On one level, it just makes for clumsy and bad writing. On another level, it makes you question the editorial integrity of MLB.com itself.

MLB.com’s news operation was met with great skepticism when it first launched nearly 20 years ago, with many fearing it would be a league-friendly propaganda outlet like Pravda.  MLB proved the doubters wrong, however, by publishing excellent work by excellent journalists, and it continues to do so today. Will MLB always be as critical of the clubs and the league as fans and some other journalists are? No, but that’s easy to let pass, because in many cases — and on a lot of the team-specific pages — the reporters working for MLB do a better job than the newspaper folks with whom they compete. Indeed, they are often less in the bag for the teams and the league than the newspaper guy is.

This in-story advertising, however, makes one wonder about all of that. It certainly makes one wonder about the disclaimer MLB.com places on every one of its articles which reads “This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.” That has to be a lie, right? Because I know Richard Justice and Joe Posnanski, I have talked to both of them in person and I know damn well that they don’t casually refer to the World Series as “The World Series Presented by YouTube TV.” That was either mandated or inserted by an editor who, in turn, got a memo from someone above them telling them that that is how the Series will be referred to. That diktat likely came directly from the business side of MLB. My guess is that YouTube specifically paid for that kind of branding. It makes one wonder what else is for sale in MLB.com’s news stories.

Like I said at the outset: I’m not naive. I’m not reflexively anti-advertising. Ads serve a purpose and help me make my living. Ads are often, in and of themselves, entertaining (I personally loved the “Dad Support Group” ad for Progressive Insurance last night, even if it hit a bit too close to home). But I feel like Major League Baseball’s pursuit of ad dollars has gotten out of hand. It is intruding upon the game itself and what most of us have come to appreciate as straightforward coverage of the game.

Is such a state of the affairs inevitable? Perhaps. But it’s certainly regrettable.

Cubs owner Tom Ricketts continues to cry poor

Tom Ricketts
Nuccio DiNuzzo/Chicago Tribune/Tribune News Service via Getty Images
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MLB owners and the MLB Players Association continue to hash out details, some in public, about a 2020 baseball season. The owners have been suggesting a shorter season, claiming that they lose money on every game played without fans in attendance. The union wants a longer season, since players are — as per the March agreement — being paid a prorated salary. Players thus make more money over the 114 games the MLBPA suggested than the 50 or so the owners want.

Cubs chairman Tom Ricketts has been among the more vocal owners in recent weeks, claiming that the coronavirus pandemic and the ensuing shutdown of MLB has greatly hurt MLB owners’ business. Speaking to ESPN’s Jesse Rogers, Ricketts claimed, “The scale of losses across the league is biblical.”

Ricketts said, “Here’s something I hope baseball fans understand. Most baseball owners don’t take money out of their team. They raise all the revenue they can from tickets and media rights, and they take out their expenses, and they give all the money left to their GM to spend.” Ricketts continued, “The league itself does not make a lot of cash. I think there is a perception that we hoard cash and we take money out and it’s all sitting in a pile we’ve collected over the years. Well, it isn’t. Because no one anticipated a pandemic. No one expects to have to draw down on the reserves from the past. Every team has to figure out a way to plug the hole.”

Pertaining to Ricketts’ claim that “the league itself does not make a lot of cash,” Forbes reported in December that, for the 17th consecutive season, MLB set a new revenue record, this time at $10.7 billion. In accounting, revenues are calculated before factoring in expenses, but unless the league has $10 billion in expenses, I cannot think of a way in which Ricketts’ statement can be true.

MLB owners notably don’t open their accounting books to the public. Because the owners were crying poor during negotiations, the MLBPA asked them to provide proof of financial distress. The owners haven’t provided those documents. Thus, unless Ricketts opens his books, his claim can be proven neither true nor false, and should be taken with the largest of salt grains. If owners really are hurting as badly as they say they are, they should be more than willing to prove it. That they don’t readily provide that proof suggests they are being misleading.

It’s worth noting that the Ricketts family has a history of not being forthcoming about their money. Cubs co-owner Todd Ricketts got into hot water last year after it was found he had used inaccurate information when paying property taxes. In 2007, he bought two properties and demolished both, building a new, state-of-the-art house. For years, Ricketts used information pertaining to the older, demolished property rather than the current property, which drastically lowered his property taxes. Based on the adjustment, Ricketts’ property taxes increased from $828,000 to $1.96 million for 2019, according to The Chicago Tribune. Ricketts also had to pay back taxes for the previous three years.

At any rate, the owners want to pass off the financial risk of doing business onto their labor force. As we have noted here countless times, there is inherent risk in doing business. Owning a Major League Baseball team has, for decades, been nearly risk-free, which has benefited both the owners and, to a lesser extent, its workforce. The pandemic has thrown a wrench into everybody’s plans, but the financial losses these last three months are part of the risk. Furthermore, when teams have done much better business than expected, the owners haven’t benevolently spread that wealth out to their players, so why should the players forfeit even more of their pay than they already are when times are tough?