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Joe Guzzardi: Baseball’s growing presence in the land Down Under

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Posted: Saturday, March 29, 2014 12:00 am

Monday is Major League Baseball’s Opening Day. That is, unless you count the two games played in Australia last week between the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Arizona Diamondbacks or the upcoming Sunday night ESPN made-for-television game that pits the Dodgers against the San Diego Padres.

Long time fans like me have stopped wondering what baseball is doing thousands of miles away from home. The days of the Cincinnati Reds getting the first game because it’s baseball’s oldest franchise or lefty Harry Truman, fedora firmly in place, throwing out the Washington Senators ceremonial first pitch before the Washington Senators started its season are long gone and never coming back.

Australia, while it has built up a good fan base and sent more than 25 players to the big leagues, will never have a franchise. The continent is 7,500 miles from Chavez Ravine. But in the meantime there are t-shirts or maybe some MLB TV subscriptions to sell. Australia represents a new and potentially growing market for MLB merchandise. Holding Opening Day outside of the U.S. is a fan-unfriendly practice that dates back to 1999 when the Colorado Rockies and San Diego Padres played in Mexico. In 2000, 2004, 2008, and 2012, Japan hosted the opener. Fried octopus, yes; hot dogs, no.

When asked why the national pastime would play its first two games in Australia, MLB commissioner Bud Selig answered in his press release last year that announced the two-game series: “The globalization of our game continues to be paramount to Major League Baseball, and Australia is an essential part of our long-term efforts to grow the sport.” On the surface, there’s nothing wrong growing your brand wherever and whenever possible.

Even without Australia, fans wonder how much money is enough and where, literally, should the buck stop. Gross revenues for the 30 teams will soon top $8 billion and that’s before the new multi-million dollar national television contracts kick in. Revenue in 1995 was a comparatively paltry $1.4 billion which, adjusted for inflation, converts to $2.2 billion in 2013 dollars. According to the math, baseball’s revenues have increased more than 250 percent in 18 years, nice work if you can get it.

The new television deal will make sweeter the already sweet MLB income stream. Starting this season, and continuing through the 2021 season, ESPN, Fox Sports, and TBS will pay an aggregate $1.5 billion for MLB’s national broadcast rights, nearly double what the networks paid the league each season from 2006 through 2013. The reason the networks are so eager to pony up is that live sports is relatively safe from being DVRed, a process that allows viewers to fast forward through commercials.

Although Selig promises to retire by 2015, those who know him best are skeptical and say that he’d like to stay on until he reaches 100. If Selig accomplishes that unlikely feat, he’ll be able to realize his latest dream of bringing baseball to Europe where the sport is unknown.

As for this lifelong fan, these days when I think about baseball, I envision the teams as Standard Oil of Indiana and the players with their multimillion dollar salaries, John D. Rockefeller. I can’t root for either.

Joe Guzzardi is a member of the Society for American Baseball Research and the Internet Baseball Writers Association of America. Contact him at guzzjoe@yahoo.com.

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