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Is Major League Baseball Going Broke? Why American Needle Makes Sports Leagues Nervous

Major League Baseball appears to be hurting financially. The signs were there from the time we landed at the airport in Indianapolis, site of this year's Baseball Winter Meetings.
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Major League Baseball (MLB) appears to be hurting financially. The signs were there, or more correctly, not there, from the time that we landed at the airport in Indianapolis, site of this year's Baseball Winter Meetings, which concluded on Thursday.

As I reported at the MAJOR BLOGS of Minor League News this week in "Indy MiLB/MLB Winter Meetings Goes Meeting Lite" gone were the huge airport banners welcoming Baseball's big winter event to town. In their place? Rowdie, the mascot of the Triple-A Indianapolis Indians holding up a white board with "Welcome to Indianapolis" scrawled on it.

Two points for Rowdie as good will ambassador.

The number of meetings were down this year. The number of side events and parties too. The money that MLB supplies to other organizations for side events was either slashed or cut out altogether.

MLB teams cut back on staff attending the event.

The plush premiums bearing the Winter Meetings logo, hats, shirts, and bags, were scaled down to lower quality gear.

The Rule V Draft, the big close to the meetings on Thursday, which MLB had been hyped up in past years with projection screens flashing video shows crowing about the MLB Network and the highlights of the past season. They were gone this year.

It was a dead event for trades and free agent signings this week.

It was as if MLB, which has been known for its excesses, turned over its operation to a guild of frugal Scottish farmers for the week. It could be because of my gig working on the minor league side, and being a wearer of many hats, that I was having the Sixth Sense moments on the business side of the meetings that something more profound was going on.

Our major league kin, the MLB writers, who, along with their editors and producers, have been Pavlovianly conditioned by MLB to pay attention only to the shiny object trades and free agent signings dangling in front of them, leaving owners free to have the rest of their business meetings, missed the big needle in the haystack:

American Needle v. NFL, to be specific.

In the meeting rooms, both major and minor, it was a much larger topic of conversation. Owners and people from the clubs' front offices are worried for good reason. American Needle is the most significant court case in sports history, bigger than the Flood case that shapes the current labor negotiations of MLB.

The case, making its way to the Supreme Court, may bust wide open MLB's vaunted federal antitrust exemptions that allow them to do all kinds of things in business and labor negotiations that would be ruled as collusion for any other business.

In a nutshell, American Needle, a logo merchandise manufacturer, is suing the NFL claiming that they violate the Sherman Antitust Act by forcing licensees to go to one collective licensing entity for the whole league, rather than being able to strike deals with the individual NFL teams themselves.

The case revisits issues of collusion which have been brought against baseball in decades past. This is not the Bush years. The Obama flavor of the United States Justice Department is back prosecuting antitrust cases. There is no bigger ground for collusion cases than professional sports.

The Majors fear that many of their limited partnership entities could be ruled to be in violation of Sherman, affecting, between the big four pro sports, billions in annual revenues from these ventures.

The big leagues are backing the NFL. The players' unions, and all of the companies who have played major league Three-Card-Monte seeking deals, will file Friend-of-the-Court briefs for American Needle.

Stan Brand, MiLB's Vice President and watchdog in Washington, sermonized quite rightly that American Needle could spell the end of affiliated Minor League Baseball as we know it, as reported to you earlier this week.

Beyond the unhinging of large money streams, though, MLB, once the National Pastime, continues to stare extinction in the face.

They have tried the World Baseball Classic. They have tried the Civil Rights Game angle to lure in fans. Gone are the prohibitions and stereotypes about international players. The Japanese apparently can hit over the deeper fences of an MLB park. Guys from Australia, China and South Koreacan bang bombs right along with us good ol' Amuricans.

MLB even built, a decade or so late, their own television network and Internet empire, trying to convert news "content" into MLB gold, rather than allow that bounty to go to the independent broadcasters and news organizations.

Still, the audience at Spring Training, and at major league parks, grows a little older, and a little smaller, each year.

In a totally unscientific survey, I polled more than two hundred people around Indianapolis' downtown area, from restaurants and bars to the guy in the taxi. Some go to an Indianapolis Indians game, but the vast majority were fans of the NFL or the NBA. Not surprising in a town without Major League Baseball. In town after town though, from Miami and Tampa to Milwaukee and Pittsburgh, you hear the same mantra:

"MLB is too expensive. Too many games to go to at that price."

The game that your father, or your grandfather, took you to for a dollar or two, the game where you followed your immigrant Brooklyn neighborhood to watch guys called "Bums" play to raucous crowds and a blaring band, is no more.

Other than the steroids-tainted Bonds chase of Aaron's record, and the McGwire-Sosa dinger-fest, Minor League Baseball (MiLB) attendance has been on the upswing, and MLB attendance has been flat to foundering.

At these meetings, MLB keeps searching for answers to what will bring people back to the game. They blame the 1994 strike, but the skys-the-limit greed of both MLB owners and players has pumped prices phenomenally, driving away people from the major league parks.

New stadiums costing hundreds of millions to the Yankees' rumored billion dolllar Bronx burrow are a novelty for only so long.

The minors continue to expand while the majors contract, because of demographic shifts in population brought about by the Internet, and because the minors huge growth audience is in families, read more women and children.

Baseball needs to reign in costs. Diversity, preached throughout the Winter Meetings, is a fine idea. MLB needs to reconnect with the African American and Hispanic communities.

Most of all though, if the hide-bound powers-that-be want to expand their audience in a historic way that meets the new growth demographics for the sport in the minors, they need to bring women into the game of professional baseball. They are the growth market in the minors, and they can easily be the engine of prosperity for baseball.

Mamie "Peanut" Johnson proved that women can play the men's game by pitching in the Negro Leagues in the 1950s and pitching well. Only Jackie Robinson's implosion of the color line ended her career. Joan Joyce pitched a softball so fast that Ted Williams could not get a piece of it at several exhibition games.

The next Joan Joyce will be to women what Jackie Robinson was to African-Americans. The game has been sanitized and padded by multi-million dollar investments in arms and legs. There is nothing "unsafe" about the game for women playing alongside men.

If baseball cannot find a new, resonant market for its wares, I fear that we writers and fans who love the game may have seen its brightest days in the rearview mirror.

When you see them nickel-and-dimeing the Winter Meetings to spare cash, you have to wonder how well MLB is really doing.