17 May 2007

Trading one casual fan for another

A couple of interesting news items before I rant a bit:
  • 106.9 Free FM (KIFR) is switching formats to classic rock, reviving the locally legendary KFRC call letters. Apparently there will be no change to A's coverage. Existing talk programming on KIFR will move to the weaker AM sister, KYCY-1550.
  • Hennepin County is prepping the Rapid Park site for August's groundbreaking of the Twins' new ballpark in downtown Minneapolis. They may be able to make the Spring 2010 opening date after all.
  • Mark your calendars for January 1, 2009. That's the date of the launch of MLB Network, which will be available on most major cable systems and DirecTV. MLB Network will reportedly be on either basic or digital tiers rather than on a sports tier, which means slightly higher monthly subscriber fees for those that get the channel. This positioning puts it on par with NFL Network (though Comcast is changing its arrangement with NFL Network). NBA TV only has such an arrangement on DirecTV, but is available only with League Pass on many cable systems. The deal is for four years with a three-year option that could bring the value of the deal up to $700 million. MLB is guaranteed $80 million per year ($2.3 million per team) with greater revenues coming with additional sales of the Extra Innings package. Ownership of the channel will be two-thirds MLB, the rest shared by the cable and satellite operators.
  • Liberty Media CEO Greg Maffei on his company's purchase of the Braves (approved by MLB today): " 'The taxes clearly made it attractive... but we're interested in seeing the value of the asset grow.' Maffei said Liberty is a strong believer in the value of sports as television programming, but noted that the Braves' TV rights already are committed long-term. 'We believe there may be some promotional opportunities.' " Well, at least he's being honest about the tax dodge - the team and several other assets were placed in a Time Warner subsidiary and were swapped for Liberty Media's 4% stake in Time Warner. Nothing screams passionate ownership more than "tax free asset swap," that's what I always say. (A chronology of the sale if you want the gory details.)

Last night I sat in the Plaza Reserved section just to get a flavor for the $2 seat again. From the looks of the crowd, the announced 16,242 were evenly split between fans in the main bowl and everyone else in the bleachers and Plaza Reserved.

The experience reminded me of how disinterested the $2 seat crowd is in the game. During the game the following happened:
  • One or two aborted wave attempts
  • Call-and-response between groups of fans singing "Happy Birthday" multiple times
  • Call-and-response between groups of fans chanting the old high school football refrain, "We've got spirit! Yes we do! We've got spirit! How about YOU!!!!" (ends with fingerpointing)
  • Teenage girls trying to distract Hiram Bocachica, who had no ML at-bats this season entering the game. The girls succeeded at least twice. I shook my head in shame. Bocachica looked overmatched in his 0-for-4 day with 1 K.
  • Random fan yelling, "Hey! Where's (insert DL'ed player here)?"
  • Numerous fans asking, "Who's this Cust guy?"
  • Greater misplaced excitement than normal about various A's hitting pop-ups.

Now I'm not a hardcore elitist type of fan. I frequently bring my casual fan friends to games and I don't care about how little or much they follow the team. That's their prerogative. And I'm happy to explain why (insert DL'ed player here) went down to anyone who asks. But that got me to thinking about what occurs on the other side of the bay.

In SF, the Giants traded their younger, more boisterous, but unfocused casual fans for quieter, older, wealthier ones. Giants games without Bonds in the lineup tend to run similar in feel to Manhattan's Bryant Park during midday, with its lovely Parisian chairs and avid readers. It's gentrification in its most obvious form. Like Pac Bell, the first few years of Cisco Field will have numerous curiosity seekers and trendy types who simply want to be in the scene. Once the novelty has worn off they'll likely move on to something else. What will remain are the dwindling number of hardcore fans and the rising number of casual fans, and maybe some of the casual fans that have been converted into staunch supporters the process.

In the end, casual fans are casual fans. Some are louder than others. Some cause more trouble than others. Some fall asleep easily. They are all transient and replaceable by nature. True, the baseball IQ at Coliseum is inversely proportional to the number of fans there. But how much should that factor into the game experience?

Casual fans are there because baseball's a unique form of entertainment first, with "quality of baseball" being further down the list of desired attributes. So what does it really matter how many there are or what type? The younger crowd comes with more energy and inherent risk. The older corporate crowd is safer and duller. How is it possible to claim that one is better than the other without showing class/racial bias? And who's to judge? Certainly not me.

There are many who lament this particular path that baseball has taken. They're easy to point fingers at the commissioner or the owners for selling baseball out, and they're right to a great extent. But isn't it incumbent upon us, the longtime fans, the diehards, to evangelize about baseball? To bring those casual fans into the fold and mesmerize them with the game's wonder? I posit the notion that if we don't, we are derelict in our duty as fans. It is not just the owners or the players that are stewards of the game. As fans, we have our own rich histories with baseball, and unless we are content to be selfish with our own recollections of the sport, we also have the responsibility to shepherd the next generations of fans. If we are not to raise the next group of diehards, who will?

This rant was inspired by the dearly departed author David Halberstam, whose Summer of '49 sits dogeared and worn in my bookcase.