I was listening to the radio while driving on Interstate 4 en route to the National Football League spring meetings on Monday
when I heard a radio sports talk-show host drone on and on about how great the National Football League was doing and
how Major League Baseball was being rocked to its foundation by the new book that details San Francisco Giants slugger
Barry Bonds' use of performance-enhancing drugs.
The talk-show host railed about that steroid scandal, which he said threatens the sport's very existence, although he seemed to
forget that the authors used leaked grand-jury testimony from Bonds and others as the basis for the book. Leaking grand-jury
testimony is illegal, but that seemed to not be relevant to the conversation. After all, it was talk radio. Lots of bluster, little
Major League Baseball, which opens its championship season on Sunday night, is not being rocked to its foundation. On the
contrary, it's doing better than ever. There are huge revenue streams flowing into the industry from various sources. Major
League Baseball has millions of fans and customers, a new multimillion-dollar cable-TV deal and two new team-owned
regional cable-TV sports networks that have just started up.
And it has U.S. Rep. Tom Davis of Northern Virginia, whose House Government Reform Committee held hearings on the
steroids issues last year, on its back again. But this time, Davis has forgotten about steroids.
Davis wants his Mid-Atlantic Sports Network placed on his local Comcast cable system so he can watch Washington
Nationals baseball in his home or in his Capitol Hill offices. And if Comcast doesn't cut a deal to put the network on its system,
Davis will haul the cable company and Major League Baseball before his committee to find a solution.
After all, Congressman Davis is just a fan who wants his home team's games on his TV set.
Major League Baseball is the most resilient of businesses. No matter how much the owners and players inflict public-relations
damage on the game, fans forgive the two sides and continue to head out to the ballpark in droves. Just look at what happened
after the BALCO grand-jury investigation, Jose Canseco's book and the congressional committee hearings.
In 2005, the New York Yankees set a franchise record by selling more than 4 million tickets, and five other teams reported
sales of more than 3 million tickets. People also flocked to ballparks in record numbers in the minor leagues.
Major League Baseball's marketing partners did not leave. It was business as usual. Just after the Canseco news broke,
General Motors signed a three-year, multimillion-dollar sponsorship deal with the league. If Major League Baseball has a weak
public image because of alleged steroid abuse by some players, why are companies continuing to pump millions of dollars into
baseball advertising? None of Major League Baseball's corporate partners pulled their advertising money out of the industry
because of the steroids scandal.
Why were cable operators such as Comcast and Time Warner so eager to partner with the New York Mets and Cleveland
Indians in new regional sports networks? Why did ESPN sign a new national cable contract last fall that might be worth about
a half-billion dollars and includes additional money for exclusive broadband and cellular-phone rights?
Major League Baseball still might create another small cable package. It will probably renew its Fox contract in a matter of
weeks and get another billion dollars over a five-or six-year period from Rupert Murdoch's network.
If people were really fed up, the Washington, D.C., City Council would not be handing Major League Baseball a $600 million
stadium for the Nationals and San Antonio officials would not be seeking a franchise. Satellite radio networks, along with cable
TV and over-the-air networks, would be demanding changes in their contracts or just canceling them. Cities and states would
be demanding changes in their leases with teams at taxpayer-funded stadiums. In fact, Major League Baseball is more
prosperous than ever.
It seems nothing can kill baseball. Fans attended games in record numbers last season, and there is no sign of that abating in
2006. How did Major League Baseball, which was down and out in 1994 when the owners and players couldn't agree to a
new collective-bargaining agreement and forced the cancelation of the World Series, rebound?
It's pretty simple. Americans love their baseball, and are willing to overlook just about anything, including players using banned
substances and leaked grand-jury testimony.
It's time to "play ball."