MILWAUKEE -- A recent ESPN.com story, for which the writer bought one of those now half-price $1,200 tickets at new Yankee Stadium, cites a study that claims households earning $75,000 or less can no longer responsibly afford to attend a professional sporting event.
If that's true, seeing the NFL, NBA, NHL or MLB live is now out of reach for 75 percent of America.
Baseball should consider itself incredibly lucky that attendance fell just 6.7 percent -- less, if the two smaller-capacity New York stadiums are factored in -- in 2009. It should feel better yet that it had its fifth-best gate, 73.4 million, thanks to a forgiving fan base willing to put the steroid blight in the rear-view.
Furthermore, when its smallest market was able to attract 3 million to see a losing team right here in plain view of the commissioner's doorstep, Bud Selig knows his game skated. "Given these challenging economic times," he said, "I am exceedingly proud of the manner in which our clubs have responded."
They also have rewarded baseball faithful with two of the better league championship series in recent memory. Without question, the Yankees, Angels, Dodgers and Phillies are the teams that belong. Representing MLB as it should in mid-October is the best talent and, in the case of the L.A. entrants, the best managers.
Still, with all that pre-Series anticipation and goodwill bursting at the red stitches, baseball cannot ignore its cost-control problems.
It goes beyond the obvious, that four of the country's largest markets are remaining in the World Series tournament, and that four of the top nine payrolls are involved. It's a given that it costs $100 million to get this far, or, in the case of the Bombers, a little more than the price of dinner for four at Le Bernardin beyond the $200 million threshold.
However, the Minnesota Twins did not trip over their modest $65 million payroll as much as they walked too many and made too many base-running mistakes against the Yankees. New York was the better team, just as the Dodgers were better than St. Louis and its $77 million outlay, but like the Twins, the Cardinals didn't exactly help themselves in the divisional series.
And you know why baseball may never have a salary cap. The union has ceded so much lately with revenue sharing and drug testing that Selig won't risk labor peace over a cap when the collective bargaining agreement expires in two years. And it's not like salary caps have been cure-alls, given the background saber-rattling presently occurring in the NFL and NBA.
Granted, this is like asking Manny Ramirez to lay down a bunt, but the owners and players must finally begin acting responsibly on their own. As many times as they've heard the sky is falling, for them to take the '09 attendance numbers for granted would be a terrible mistake.
Even if the ESPN study numbers are somewhat exaggerated, its noted pollster, Rich Luker, makes an interesting point:
Using the example of struggling Starbucks, Luker says teams are in "harvest mode," with ticket gouging to support skyrocketing payrolls, at a time when discretionary income has bottomed. Not only is the fan base being alienated, it is no longer largely made up of teenage boys. The bulk of its support comes from Baby Boomers, who don't have that many ticket-buying years left.
So, in a generation, baseball could find itself in a completely different state with its pro-sports brethren. Unlike other businesses, it has time to prepare. Coming in high and tight with the customers would not be an advisable call.