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Baseball's booming south of the border Add to ...

The folks in charge of the Toronto Blue Jays can only look on longingly as baseball south of the border enjoys an impressive resurgence. While the Jays struggle to escape mediocrity on the field, further reduce costs and rebuild a deteriorating fan base, baseball has again become a force in the crowded U.S. world of mass-market entertainment.

The sport has plenty of underlying problems. It still hasn't figured out how to appeal to young people or blacks, revenue sharing isn't working the way it was supposed to, steroid use threatens to erupt into a major scandal, the gap between the haves and have-nots is widening and most teams are mired in red ink.

But for all that, baseball's recent successes, whether thanks to smarter business practices or a remarkable string of luck, are undeniable.

Compelling stories such as the Yankees-Red Sox rivalry and the "Curse of the Bambino" have been a marketing godsend. New stadiums have boosted attendance and revenues. Merchandise sales are soaring, Internet traffic is way up -- baseball is ahead of the sports curve in exploiting the income potential of webcasts -- and sponsors and licensees have been lining up to get on board.

Television audiences for postseason games are higher than they have been in years -- even surpassing Super Bowl ratings in the key New England market, where the Red Sox rule. Indeed, the playoffs have produced such strong ratings, ad revenue and promotional opportunities for the Fox network that baseball's six-year, $2.5-billion (U.S.) contract looks like one of the better bargains in televised sports. The network, whose deal runs until 2006, has boosted fees for commercial time by as much as 40 per cent since the playoffs began.

"Baseball was up all year long. And then on top of that you get probably two of the best baseball [playoff]series you'll ever see," said Rick Becker, vice-president of sales and marketing with VF Activewear, which supplies the T-shirts players wear after games. Becker expects to shatter the record for merchandise sales set during the subway series of 2000 between the Yankees and Mets.

"Baseball is really on a great run," Major League Baseball president Bob DuPuy crowed recently after XM Satellite Radio inked an 11-year deal worth $650-million (U.S.) to carry games to its subscribers. "The interest in the game has never been higher, and the business side of baseball is booming."

Things are going so well that commissioner Bud Selig thinks half the franchises might show a profit for the season. That may not sound great, but consider this: Since the ill-fated lockout of 1994-95, only a handful of teams have reached the black in any given season. And not even the excitement of home-run records, close pennant races, unpredictable playoffs and the return to glory of the love-'em-or-hate-'em Yankees have been able to turn the situation around.

"In the last five years, there were times when [only]two or three teams showed a profit," Selig told BusinessWeek magazine. "It was a very serious situation , and a lot of people were concerned, including our bankers."

Leaving aside the fact that league commissioners all sound like Eeyore, baseball isn't nearly out of the woods yet.

"You have to understand the parameters of the success," said Andrew Zimbalist, an economics professor and author of May the Best Team Win: Baseball Economics and Public Policy. "Baseball is being revived right now. But the average attendance is still below where it was in 1994. So it's simply recovering from the devastation of the work stoppage."

As any of Selig's legion of critics will tell you, baseball has revived almost despite the worst efforts of its leaders.

"The biggest thing I would say baseball is doing right has been letting baseball take care of baseball," said Maury Brown, co-chair of the business of baseball committee of the Society for American Baseball Research.

"When the business aspect of the game is removed, the game seems to fare well. It's more resilient than those that run it."

As for the Jays, their turn may come again if the team improves and the front office does a better job of marketing the product.

But their fans will never match the loyalty and fanaticism of the long-suffering Red Sox faithful.

Becker tells of a retailer in Boston apologizing for delays in restocking shelves with Red Sox apparel.

A customer's response: "We've waited 86 years. I think we can wait another 10 minutes."

bmilner@globeandmail.ca

Follow on Twitter: @bmilnerglobe

 

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