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Baseball had its worst attendance in 16 years

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Eric Fisher of Sportsbusiness.com reported this morning that Major League Baseball had its worst attendance in sixteen years in 2019. Total attendance was 68.49 million, which is down 1.7% from 2018 and represents the sixth decline in attendance in the last seven seasons. Attendance is down a whopping 14% from its height in 2007.

While there are many reasons for the attendance decline, it’s hard not to lay a hefty amount of the blame on an increasing number of teams simply not trying to win. There were four 100-loss teams in 2019 and six more teams lost at least 90 games. Most of that losing was due to rebuilds which have not prioritized spending money or winning at the major league level. All of that bad play led to extreme competitive imbalance and almost non-existent pennant races. Given that baseball ticket prices apparently only go up from year to year, never down, it’s not surprising at all that the demand for the increasingly expensive product that is a major league baseball game has sunk.

As we’ve noted in the past, however, it’s not something Major League Baseball seems all too concerned about.

Even with the attendance decline of the past several seasons, Major League Baseball and its clubs continue to rake in money. Indeed, in 2018 Major League Baseball set a new record for revenue. It did this despite selling fewer tickets by increasingly relying on sources of income that, unlike ticket sales, have little or no dependence on clubs putting entertaining and competitive baseball teams on the field. Sports economists refer to such revenue as coming from “non-player sources,” which is a fancy way of saying from side deals, such as selling BamTech for a massive windfallpartnering with casinosKorean conglomerates and various other corporate partners that pay Major League Baseball a lot of money. At the same time some “player revenue” like TV deals to broadcast games come with massive payouts and very long terms, sometimes lasting decades. That means that cable networks are paying billions to clubs who have no immediate concern for winning to maintain TV ratings. Meanwhile, as all that revenue goes up, player payrolls are trending downward, with even wealthy, high-revenue teams like the Boston Red Sox cutting payroll, leading to increases in profitability.

All of which means that, for the time being, the decline at the box office is one that Major League Baseball can weather. But as I wrote last January, I question whether they can weather it forever.

Baseball making money is not some inevitable and immutable rule of the cosmos. At some level, the deal is that competitive sports teams will try to win and fans will pay good money to support said efforts. When the owners of said teams break that deal, why should the fans hold up their end of it? Eventually, if they do not, a great deal of that side money is gonna start to go away too.

If that happens, and if baseball wonders why it got into the jam in which I am concerned it will one day find itself, it will want to ask itself why people stopped showing up at the ballpark.

An Astros executive asked scouts to use cameras, binoculars to steal signs in 2017

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The Athletic reports that an Astros executive asked scouts to spy on opponents’ dugouts in August of 2017, suggesting in an email that they use cameras or binoculars to do so.

The email, ESPN’s Jeff Passan reports, came from Kevin Goldstein, who is currently a special assistant for player personnel but who at the time was the director of pro scouting. In it he wrote:

“One thing in specific we are looking for is picking up signs coming out of the dugout. What we are looking for is how much we can see, how we would log things, if we need cameras/binoculars, etc. So go to game, see what you can (or can’t) do and report back your findings.”

The email came during the same month that the Red Sox were found to have illegally used an Apple Watch to steal signs from the Yankees. The Red Sox were fined as a result, and it led to a clarification from Major League Baseball that sign stealing via electronic or technological means was prohibited. Early in 2019 Major League Baseball further emphasized this rule and stated that teams would receive heavy penalties, including loss of draft picks and/or bonus pool money if they were found to be in violation.

It’s an interesting question whether Goldstein’s request to scouts would fall under the same category as the Apple Watch stuff or other technology-based sign-stealing schemes. On the one hand, the email certainly asked scouts to use cameras and binoculars to get a look at opposing signs. On the other hand, it does not appear that it was part of a sign-relaying scheme or that it was to be used in real time. Rather, it seems aimed at information gathering for later use. The Athletic suggests that using eyes or binoculars would be considered acceptable in 2017 but that cameras would not be. The Athletic spoke to scouts and other front office people who all think that asking scouts to use a camera would “be over the line” or would constitute “cheating.”

Of course, given how vague, until very recently Major League Baseball’s rules have been about this — it’s long been governed by the so-called “unwritten rules” and convention, only recently becoming a matter of official sanction — it’s not at all clear how the league might consider it. It’s certainly part and parcel of an overarching sign-stealing culture in baseball which we are learning has moved far, far past players simply looking on from second base to try to steal signs, which has always been considered a simple matter of gamesmanship. Now, it appears, it is organizationally-driven, with baseball operations, scouting and audio-visual people being involved. The view on all of this has changed given how sophisticated and wide-ranging an operation modern sign-stealing appears to be. Major League Baseball was particularly concerned, at the time the Red Sox were punished for the Apple Watch stuff, that it involved management and front office personnel.

Regardless of how that all fits together, Goldstein’s email generated considerable angst among Astros scouts, many of whom, The Athletic and ESPN report, commented in real time via email and the Astros scout’s Slack channel, that they considered it to be an unreasonable request that would risk their reputations as scouts. Some voiced concern to management. Today that email has new life, emerging as it does in the wake of last week’s revelations about the Astros’ sign-stealing schemes.

This is quickly becoming the biggest story of the offseason.