If your interest lies in anything that has to do with sports outside the lines, then the trade magazine the Sports Business Journal and it’s counterpart, the Sports Business Daily are indispensable resources for keeping up with all manner of sports business.
When it comes to covering Major League Baseball as an industry, Eric Fisher has done as good a job as any for the SBJ and SBD.
Fisher started in the mid 1990s at a small daily paper in Easton, Md., as their business editor, managing the business and real estate pages during the day and ‘moonlighting’ at night covering Washington Bullets home games across the bridge in Landover.He went to The Washington Times in ’96 where he worked for two years as a general assignment writer on the business desk. During that time he covered the opening of the MCI Center and FedEx Field and the death of Jack Kent Cooke. In ’98, when the Washington Redskins went up for sale, he covered the story as essentially an every-day assignment for the next nine months through the closing of the record sale to Dan Snyder. On the heels of that saga, he transferred to the sports desk to create the paper’s new sports business beat, where he immediately got to work on the baseball-in-Washington story, but also covered plenty of other issues including the NHL lockout and Michael Jordan’s arrival to and departure from Washington.
Since coming on-board with the Sports Business Journal he has covered MLB extensively, including interviews with Commissioner Selig, the covering of the latest negotiations for the MLB Extra Innings television package, and a host of other issues surrounding baseball.
The following interview covers Selig’s legacy, the on-going issues surrounding MLB’s television black out policy, the upcoming sale of the Chicago Cubs, television ratings for the postseason, thoughts on MLB’s attendance, the Washington Nationals stadium development, and whether viewership on the East Coast is really impacted by late starting times for games in the West. - Maury Brown
Maury Brown for the Business of Sports Network: The Sports Business Journal selected Commissioner Selig as the Sports Executive of the Year, and you’ve interviewed him face-to-face. On his own, how much credit does Selig deserve for MLB’s current robust standing? Is Selig the driver, or is the atmosphere between the owners, and the MLBPA play a larger part?
Eric Fisher: The premise of your question is interesting. Selig was, and in some circles still is, vilified – and to some degree fairly – for the ’94 strike, the imbalance of the late ‘90s, the contraction follies, the steroid issue, and so forth. But he gets much less credit for the positives that have occurred on his watch. And that strikes me as quite unfair. Selig is always going to have an uphill climb given that his public persona does not match that of a prototypical chief executive. And there are certainly a lot of other people also responsible for the current success the industry is enjoying, the union and its leadership included. But Bud definitely has not received enough credit for what’s happening. The generally strong level of unanimity we’re seeing among the owners, which in turn is helping fuel a lot of the growth we’re seeing, is the result of a lot of tough ground work on his part. And he’s become much more engaged with rightsholders to make their deals with baseball work year after year better rather simply accepting a check.
Bizball: Yourself and John Ourand covered the Extra Innings negotiations closer than any others. For the vast majority of the negotiations it seemed as if DirecTV would wind up with exclusive rights to the out-of-market game package. In the end, MLB wound up negotiating a very lucrative deal, both for EI, and the upcoming MLB Network. Do you feel that the outcome planned, or was it more of a case of MLB falling into a great deal?
Fisher: Baseball was plenty prepared to go it alone with DirecTV, at least for the short term. Remember, this thing was borne in part by a real frustration within MLB at the rather weak fashion in which cable had sold and marketed Extra Innings. So to that end, I don’t think anyone had the final accord planned out last fall when this was all getting ready to start. But I don’t think it was “falling into” this deal either. Comcast had to get fully engaged in the process to really get MLB’s respect and attention, and MLB had to make some concessions they hadn’t originally planned on, such as taking less upfront cash and redividing the equity in the channel. But there’s definitely no doubt the channel is in a very strong position as the launch approaches.
Bizball: MLB has requested that the owners re-evaluate their broadcast territories in an attempt to minimize issues that surround the league’s complex blackout policy. With the MLB Network coming online in 2009 as the largest cable channel launch in history, how much of an issue will the blackout policy create?
Fisher: The MLB brass has been rather tight-lipped about this of late. The answer that we’re going to have to get to eventually – teams giving up claims to certain markets – is obviously a lot easier said than done. What MLB will likely need to do is make an economic case to the clubs that the overall revenues from the MLB Network will ultimately overtake what is being lost on a local and regional level. That’s basically the argument that helped start MLB Advanced Media. The mindset requires patience and vision. But the current reality is so unsatisfactory that one has to hope that common sense prevails at some point.
Bizball: You may have been the first to report that the impending sale of the Chicago Cubs might hit $1 billion or more. There has been talk recently of the assets around the sale – Wrigley Field, a 25% stake in Comcast SportsNet Chicago, and Wrigley Field Premium Tickets. How do you foresee the sale occurring?
Fisher: Well, I actually wrote $800 million as a target figure back in the spring when the for-sale sign was first hung. It may bleed a little higher toward $1 billion. But that’s a rather large psychological barrier to cross, and when the deal is done, a lot to debt to carry. And make no mistake, that ballpark is going to need a lot of attention when the new owner finally gets the keys. That place has been cruising a bit on reputation in recent years rather than actual ballpark experience. And given the yeoman’s work the Red Sox ownership has done to Fenway, the bar is being substantially raised for what can and should be done in older ballparks. So if I had to hazard a guess – and this is just a guess since the financial books are just now going out to prospective bidders – I would say the deal comes in $900 million, maybe $925 million.
Bizball: Do you see anyone that might unseat John Canning, Jr. as the front runner to win the bid for the Cubs?
Fisher: No, I really don’t. He’s done an impressive job bringing in some potential rivals into his group. He obviously has the connections, the all-important Friend Of Bud tag, knows how the industry works, and perhaps most important, he’s kept his mouth shut. That matters a lot in these proceedings.
Bizball: Regular season television ratings at the regional and local level were extremely robust this year with 21 of the 29 clubs showing increases from the year prior. Yet, this postseason sees another dip in the ratings due to teams such as the Diamondbacks and Rockies in the NLCS. What does baseball and the networks need to do, if anything, to help get attention beyond the Red Sox and Yankees?
Fisher: This is something that’s really frustrated the league. For the past several years, basically every economic indicator from attendance and local TV ratings to merchandise sales, franchise values, Internet metrics and overall revenue has soared through the roof. But one high profile exception – national TV ratings for the LCS and World Series – has gone the other way, and it’s led some people to conclude the entire game is in crisis. It’s anything but. The playoff ratings have been sort of a weird black eye for baseball, and something that’s exposed some of the curiosities of the TV business, as well as some of the stiff sweeps-driven competition that the playoffs go up against.
Having said all that, MLB has been particularly focused this year on getting the playoff ratings back up. That started in January when Selig, his senior staffers and MLB’s executive council met for hours with executives from Fox and Turner to begin planning for the postseason. And it’s continued during the season as MLB started its playoff marketing earlier than ever, and Selig trumped up the World Series as a premier TV property at many opportunities. I don’t think it’s so much a Yankee-Red Sox thing. Any series with big markets and goes at or near the distance with plenty of dramatic moments is going to do fine. The Rockies are a tremendous story, but there’s no drama there now, at least not until the World Series.
Bizball: This season saw yet another record for attendance at both the minor league and major league levels. With several new stadiums set to come online that are smaller than their predecessors, will we continue to see a rise in attendance, or are we nearing a point where we’re nearing a peak?
Fisher: This is definitely a growing issue. Selig wants to get above 80 million in total attendance in 2008 and he should get there. But there were four clubs that sold more than 95 percent of their available seats this year, another four above 90 percent, and a handful of other beyond 80 percent. And with the Yankees and Mets both downsizing with the opening of their new stadiums in 2009, next season could be the biggest attendance number we see in quite a while.
Bizball: You covered the MLB to DC effort for the Washington Times before coming to the SBJ. What are your thoughts on how the process went and continues.
Fisher: I was just down for the final RFK Stadium game, and wrote about the state of the organization coming off that trip, and the thing that really struck me was how normal it all is now. They’re building the ballpark, and there are obviously many issues that have be sorted out as we get toward Opening Day, not the least of which is the parking and transportation plan. The roster remains a work in progress. But these are all issues that plenty of other teams face or has faced before, and in some cases, every other team faces. For far too long, this was a team and organization like no other, weird and unique for a whole lot of reasons, most of them negative. But there’s not really much difference now between the Nationals and a whole batch of other MLB teams. And after all the drama that happened, that’s a rather refreshing thing to see.
Bizball: It seems that the new Nationals ballpark will come online without a naming rights deal. Ownership wishes to reach an annual deal in the $8 million-$10 million range. Is the naming rights market thinning out, or will is a deal, such that the Nationals are looking to land seem well within reach?
Fisher: I don’t think the market is really thinning out. The issue, rather, is that the Nationals are going to market at the same time as lot of other big opportunities out there: the forthcoming Jets/Giants stadium, the Yankees’ package of entitlements that won’t include the stadium name but a lot of other major opportunities, the Jacobs Field renaming, and so forth. The college facility naming market also still has a lot going on. So if you’re running a major corporation that’s looking to do this sort of thing, you’re inevitably going to be kicking the tires on not only the Nationals’ ballpark, but some of these others, too. I still have confidence the Lerners and Kasten will get to that target number eventually. The question is how much media on MASN, the club’s Web site and so forth is baked into that number.
Bizball: The cover story that you and John Ourand did for the latest Sports Business Journal covers a topic that many baseball fans on the East Coast have followed: the late start of games, and how it supposedly is lowering television viewership, especially for the younger demographics. What did your research find?
Fisher: The ratings data, over a period of years, shows that the later a game starts and finishes, the better rating – across all demographics with the exception of adults aged 55 and above. For MLB postseason specifically, ratings for all demos except the 55+ crowd went up after 11 p.m., and the World Series year after year gets 4 to 6 percent of its total viewing audience from viewers aged 11 and under. It’s a refrain the networks have been making for years, but it goes directly against the grain of East Coast columnist opinion claiming the late-night play is eroding youth interest in MLB. Baseball, already facing a higher societal standard than other sports, gets the brunt of heat on this issue since its postseason squares up against school nights more than most other properties. Basically what we have is a collision of two less-than-perfect methods of research – Nielsen’s sampling versus the tiny focus groups of one or two in the homes of each columnist decrying the playoff TV schedule.
Interview conducted by Maury Brown on the week of 10/15/07
Edited by Maury Brown