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— Where BTF's Members Investigate the Grand Old Game
Sunday, December 23, 2001
Grantland Rice once said, “A wise man makes his own decisions, an ignorant man follows the public opinion.” I hope fans are wiser than Bud Selig thinks they are.
The Frenzied War of Words As Baseball Enters Its Winter of Discontent?
As another Christmas looms over us (Santa will get a special escort this year?), we are getting a glimpse of just how important the wranglings of this baseball off-season are to the men who run it.
That glimpse tells us that there are no visions of sugarplums dancing in the heads of Budzilla and his flock of elves in the Commissioner?s office. Even as free agent signings continue, pushing the matter of contraction from sports page headlines, Bud Selig and company are mounting an arm-twisting campaign that has literally no precedent in the history of baseball public relations.
Exhibit A?Rob Neyer. Rob was the first to clue us in on the ?hard sell? approach being undertaken by Budzilla and his bobos. Rob told his readers that none other than Selig himself grilled him over one of his more scorching columns about baseball?s economics.
Of course, Rob didn?t go into exact detail about what portions of his column Budzilla was questioning. Nor did he reveal anything else that might have been said about the slant that he had been taking on the matter, either over the years or of late. (The truth is, of course, that many writers have been raking Budzilla over the coals since the announcement of MLB?s silly, self-serving, and suspicious contraction ?plan.?)
Is it merely a coincidence that a few days later, Neyer suddenly found a new target in MLBPA chief Don Fehr?
Exhibit B?Paul White. Those of you who think my ?days of rage? began over a certain matter related to pitch counts probably don?t remember that the editor of Baseball Weekly took a shot in the pages of the Big Bad Baseball Annual (in the 1996 edition). In a section called ?Talking Paul White Blues,? yours always-irascible truly pointed out that White was making light of the labor situation (at that time, MLB and the players were dragging their feet about fixing the CBA, and no one in the media was willing to talk about it).
Now here we are five years later, and Paul White has been magnificent on the labor and economics issues this time around. Apparently Paul has had a bellyful of this stuff, because he?s been about as righteously indignant as a guy with an engagingly silly smirk can be.
What may be more significant is that Paul broke the story about a more widespread campaign of arm-twisting from the Commissioner?s office.
While Paul worked hard to cast such actions in a positive light, the revelation that far more effort is being put into ?spinning the facts? in this edition of baseball?s St. Vitus Dance shows that Selig and company are willing to move toward Draconian measures inside baseball?s community in order to turn around the essentially disastrous press they?ve been getting for the past six weeks.
And finally, there?s Exhibit C?MLB?s attempt to ?spin? the issue of competitive balance via public opinion surveys that?ever so conveniently?show ostensible public support for the owners? position.
The consulting firm of Penn, Schoen, and Berland conducted a poll for MLB, and a leaked copy of their report shows that Budzilla and his boys are mounting a carefully-crafted campaign to narrow public perception to their talking points. (As you?ll see, this is far from the ?open, intelligent debate of baseball?s economic and political issues? that Paul White hopes to see emerge from such efforts.)
The first bogey in the MLB opinion poll spin is in the claim that three out of four fans believe that there is lack of competitive balance in baseball. The actual figures show that only 36% of the poll respondents ?strongly agree? with this assertion. Another 39% ?somewhat agree? with this statement.
So, in fact, only slightly more than a third of baseball fans are seriously concerned about this issue.
That?s not how Budzilla and his boys will spin the data, of course. ?Three out of four fans!? they?ll be screaming from the rooftops.
A bit further down in the report, the marketing wonks get their licks in. ?If competitive balance is not improved,? they conclude, ?42% of fans will lose interest in the game.?
Interestingly, they break this down into ?avid? fans and ?moderate? fans. (Let?s skip over the fact that they don?t bother to define these categories for us, or apparently don?t feel the need to generate any kind of product linkage profile for these groups?i.e. how many games are attended on average by these groups, how much money is spent on average, etc.).
Strangely, the ?avid? fans are far less worried about competitive balance issues. Only 35% of them will lose interest, as opposed to 47% of the ?moderate? fans.
It?s kind of interesting that this figure?35%?is almost identical to the earlier percentage of fans agreeing that there is a lack of competitive balance. It really seems that slightly more than a third of the most important baseball fans (that is, the ones that probably spend close to 75% of the income MLB derives from ticket sales, parking, and concessions) are worried about this issue.
And yet you?ll be hearing that ?3 out of 4 fans? think competitive balance is out of whack.
Probably the funniest slide in the presentation comes when MLB tries to prop up Budzilla. 77% of the fans responding to this poll apparently said that they see Selig in a more positive light as a result of his efforts to get out the message that MLB has a competitive balance problem.
As Charlie Saeger pointed out, the wording of this question must have been exceptionally precise to produce such a result, given that about 77% of the media has been hammering on Budzilla with anything not nailed down to the floor over the past six weeks.
A more blunt question, such as ?Do you think Bud Selig has done a good job as Commissioner of Baseball?? is not going to produce a 77% approval rating. The spin cycle here is about six times the average speed of an industrial-strength dryer at your corner Laundromat.
Some economic issues do get addressed. The poll claims that 62% of fans believe that baseball is having financial problems?but, as we?ve seen before, this figure is likely a combination of ?serious financial problems? and ?some financial problems,? with about half in each category. The consulting firm wasn?t willing to break down the specific responses for this question, which often means that they?re trying to hide a soft spot in the data.
Any way you slice this data, it appears that maybe a third of baseball fans are buying all or part of the owners? message. Their efforts here are to make it appear to the media and the public that the support for the owners? position is twice as strong as what it actually is.
And, of course, that?s why they call it ?spin.?
In the final slide, the consulting firm lets us know that it interviewed 1000 baseball fans, 310 of which were ?avid? fans. I realize that there are valid claims for scientific polling, but I am just not convinced that we know enough about the constitution of this group to feel confident that they represent the full contingent of hard-core fans. Penn, Schoen and Berland aren?t telling us, and MLB isn?t going to, either. The job of the pollster in this case isn?t to tell us what really is, it?s to give the client something they can use to sell their message.
Frankly, we?d be better off running our own poll, and my hope is that the editors here at Baseball Primer and the guys who?ve taken their lumps from me in the past will seize this opportunity to create polls of their own, ones that ask blunt, direct questions about baseball?s economic situation, the issue of competitive balance, and the performance of Bud Selig and his MLB elves.
They might also ask people?s opinions about contraction?a question that was curiously absent from the Penn, Schoen and Berland data set.
Or perhaps there was no way to spin that question to a figure above 50%.
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