Bud Selig says baseball 'more popular than ever,' other less dubious things

David Banks

Commissioner Bud Selig claims that the major leagues are more popular than ever. But do the numbers back him up?

As a former used car salesman, Bud Selig knows what the kids are into. And according to his remarks in a recent interview, it's Major League Baseball.

While the interview itself focused only briefly on Selig's claims of the allegedly unprecedented popularity of America's pastime, it was perhaps the most significant part of a conversation mostly spent side-stepping questions about disgraced NBA owner Donald Sterling.

"I'm not going to comment on that," Selig told reporters, "I haven't commented all week. I don't like to comment on other sports. ... I'll let [NBA commissioner] Adam Silver, who is a very, very fine, very smart man, whom I have I talked to -- I'll let him do all the commenting."

And although he made it clear that he felt the MLB was uniquely equipped to handle a Sterling-esque problem, he avoiding elaborating on that any further. "I don't want to get into that, except we do have a history, without me going back into it, and our constitution is different than the other sports," he said.

This silence was intentional, despite the collective action previously taken by the league against two of the most infamous owners in the history of American sports: Marge Schott and George Steinbrenner. He was only slightly more candid regarding the harrowing tale of Dodgers outfielder Yasiel Puig's journey to America from his native Cuba. While he said that he found Puig's to be "a tough story to read," he also made it clear that there isn't much he can do regarding the situation despite his considerable powers as commissioner and his desire to create an international draft as part of the next collective bargaining agreement.

"You're getting into an international political situation," Selig said, referencing the inherent issues with players from Cuba being involved in human trafficking/smuggling operations essentially out of necessity. "Commissioners have a lot of power, but they don't have it in international politics, I can assure you of that."

These statements do have a strong ring of truth to them, but it's unclear if the same can be said for the facts Selig's has to back up his more specific claims regarding the popularity and health of his sport.

"The last 10 years have by far been the greatest attended years ever," Selig said in support of his claims, before continuing to read off the successes of his tenure as evidence of a popularity boom for the league. "We're going to have labor peace for 21 years. And for those of you who have been around a lot, that is almost unbelievable. When I took over in 1992, the gross revenue ... was $1.2 billion. This year is will be well over $8 billion, $8.5 billion."

These are, of course, "accurate" statements. But, when put back into the context from which they came, it appears that while baseball might by "more popular" than ever, that may be less a function of actual popularity than the recent architectural revolution in sports and the inflated television rights market. Take, for instance, the increase in revenues over the last 21 years, from when Selig took over in 1992 until 2013.

To begin, while the revenue increase is undeniable, the correlation between increased attendance and increased revenues doesn't seem to jibe with the evaluations of disinterested parties. According to Forbes, which referred to attendance growth as "ostensibly flat for the league," the TV rights bubble is what should be getting the credit for the "staggering" 264 percent growth since the first post-strike season of 1995. This idea of "flat" attendance growth is something that has also afflicted the NFL, which has seen attendance steadily drop since 2007.

But, not every league has had issues with stagnant attendance figures; the NBA was able to post its most successful year in terms of gate revenue just last season. It also doesn't take into account that many of the increases in attendance were likely a function of the new stadium construction boom that occurred over the last decade. And, for every San Francisco Giants organization that is able to sustain attendance figures in its beautiful new ballpark and use the increased revenues to build a winning team, there's a Seattle Marinerswhich has seen attendance steadily decline after leading the league in attendance during two of the first three years at Safeco Field.

In fact, there may be the beginnings of a league-wide trend.

According to a different piece by Forbes from the end of last season, attendance was down 1.06% in 2013. This may seem insignificant, especially given the problematic sample size. But, as Forbes points out, it was also the first season of daily interleague play, which has routinely been better than intraleague play at getting fans into the ballpark. While this could be a one-year blip, it also may signify that some of the leading factors that led to an increase in attendance over the last 10 years -- every year in the past decade has been one of the top ten all time -- like the novelty of new stadiums and interleague play may be losing some of their marketing power.

And even with the number of baseball teams exceeding valuations by Forbes of over a billion dollars -- five, with the Yankees, Dodgers, Red Sox, Cubs and Giants -- ranking only behind the NFL's cash cow, there may be some cause for concern. Most notably, the aforementioned rights bubble generating those sky-high valuations is seen by some to have the potential to "destroy the future" of the league.

Considering the steadily declining regular-season ratingssome of the lowest ratings in World Series history over the past several yearsthe league steadily losing ground to the younger NBA and what could charitably be described as a diversity issue, baseball does not seem to be as popular or healthy as it has been even in the last 15 years.

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