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Winter Meetings Give MLB An Offseason Frenzy

December 7, 2013


MLB may not be the most sought-after prize in the television media derby -- the NFL holds that spot, getting billions of dollars through its contracts with Fox, NBC, CBS and ESPN. MLB may not have the hip-hop swagger of the NBA, which features stars such as Kobe Bryant and LeBron James, who are often known simply as Kobe and LeBron. But MLB does have something other U.S. professional sports leagues lack -- an offseason that matters.

The NFL has seemingly convinced its media partners that athletes in shorts and skintight T-shirts running sprints, lifting weights and running around cones is worthy of people's time and attention. The NBA has the mock frenzy of the draft, when 19-year-olds in shiny new suits stroll across a stage for a photo op with commissioner David Stern. But the MLB winter meetings invigorate interest in the game, spike radio talk shows and inflate page views on digital sports pages. This year, the interest is even greater, spurred by the more than $600 million in player contracts awarded during the last week alone.

This year, the winter meetings are being held in Orlando, Fla., from Dec. 9-12 and baseball has what its brethren and leaders of the other leagues could only hope for, a virtual swap meet of talent and money flying through bank accounts. Sports fans and followers of the sports business love to see other people spend their money on talent.

Could you imagine the interest and media frenzy that would be created if New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick and San Francisco 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh were mapping out a trade for their quarterbacks, Tom Brady and Colin Kaepernick, in April? Or, better yet, what if there were a free-agent signing of an NFL star at the peak of his career, along the lines of the Seattle Mariners' reported signing of former New York Yankees second baseman Robinson Cano?

There was a similar situation in the NFL before the 2012 season, when football fans were scouring the Internet for the tail numbers of the private jets that quarterback Peyton Manning was rumored to be taking as he met with various teams during free agency. The NFL salary cap took the fun out of that potential circus.

Sports fans love baseball, and they consume it during the offseason precisely because there are no owner-imposed limitations on payroll. That lack of a ceiling has brought the frenzy, and controversy, around Alex Rodriquez and his contract with the Texas Rangers (and then the Yankees), Albert Pujols and the Los Angeles Angels, and now Cano and Seattle.

MLB commissioner Bud Selig may publicly say that these types of free-agent contracts and spending sprees are baseball's worst of times, but no, they are evidence of baseball's best of times. Trying to tamp down these free-agent derbies, while fueling them with new national television dollars, is reminiscent of when Johnny Carson would come on stage for his monologue on "The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson." While Carson would be waving his right hand for the audience to settle down so he could start the show, just off camera, his left hand would be flipping his fingers upward, encouraging more applause to feed the moment.

MLB's new spending spiral is related to its new national television deals, which will commence with the 2014 season. The league's three principal media partners -- Fox, ESPN and Turner Broadcasting (TBS) -- will be paying a combined $1.5 billion per year, according to media reports in 2012, when the new deals were announced. It is also no coincidence that two of the players with the richest deals, Pujols and Cano, headed to teams who had received a financial windfall from their local regional sports networks rights holders.

Curiously, in the Baltimore and Washington, D.C., areas, the Washington Nationals have participated in the fun and frenzy, with both a trade (for starter Doug Fister) and a reported signing (of outfielder Nate McLouth), but the Orioles have primarily moved money off their payroll (closer Jim Johnson to Oakland) and are sitting as still as the Stoop Kid on the children's TV show "Hey Arnold!"

Yet, no matter whether players are moving to New York, Seattle, San Francisco or Houston, collectively, the MLB winter meetings provide the energy other leagues try to manufacture with their made-for-the-media lights and glitter. Even when MLB takes a break from playing games, the business of baseball goes on.