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Baseball Monopoly

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I was watching the remake of The Hills Have Eyes this afternoon. It's not bad: about a hundred times better than the awful Wolf Creek, but covering basically the same territory. Bunch of tourists trapped in the remote desert when their vehicle craps out on them. Hilarity ensues. Well, in the form of a psychotic Crocodile Dundee loony (Wolf), or a town of radioactive mutants (Hills), at least. Both are solid reminders of why Mrs. SnakePit and I prefer holidays to involve room service and large bathrooms, rather than camping amid the grandeur of nature. Anyway, the relevance here is that the editor of Hills was called "Baxter". Just Baxter: made me briefly wonder whether a change of employment had been required for our mangy mascot. Sadly, does not appear to be the case.

January is almost at an end: where did it go? Can't say I'll be too sorry to see it leave, been far too chilly and un-Arizonan for my tastes. I mean, snow? Okay, we are talking barely enough, over all of Maricopa County, to fill a globe, but it brough back memories of the grey, dismal United Kingdom, and trudging across London Bridge to work, without a brolly, and in the sleet. Let's say that pitchers and catchers can't be reporting soon enough for my tastes. Let's see some balmy spring weather, as soon as possible, so I can stash the trenchcoat for another year...

Interesting, if potentially disturbing news, in the report that baseball authorities are closing in on a deal which would give DirecTV exclusive access to the Extra Innings package, which allows subscribers access to out-of-market games. It's not a big issue personally, since we get the vast majority of the D'backs games on Channel 3 or Fox Sports Arizona, but I can see it could pose problems for those who don't have - or don't want - to switch to that company, or who have cable. It certainly makes a lot of money for MLB: they get $700m for the seven-year deal.

The numbers don't seem to add up for DirecTV in quite the same way, however. It's estimated that in 2005, there were 280,000 subscribers to Extra Innings at $170 a pop. That works out at less than $50m in income, so DirecTV are going to need to double their customer base, simply in order to be able to pay for the content. I do note that the current number is tiny, placed beside the 600K for the NBA League Pass, or the two million subscribers for the NFL Sunday Ticket, so it seems DirecTV are anticipating baseball numbers getting up to those levels. There is some potential: baseball had 1.3m subscribers for its MLB.tv package in 2005, and that's a number expected to grow, as high-speed internet becomes omniprescent. However, that was considerably cheaper than Extra Innings, and also means MLB is, in effect, competing with the company to whom its selling the product.

It does seem that baseball is taking advantage of its anti-trust exemption, in ways I severely doubt were considered, when the loophole was created in 1922. At the time of that ruling, leagues merely arranged the schedules and set rules, but all the business was entirely local. There was no revenue sharing, broadcasts of games, national sponsors or licensing deals, which is largely why the Supreme Court decided, in a unanimous decision written by noted Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., that baseball games were intrastate events. As a result they were not subject to the Sherman act, which limits attempts to control or monopolize trade by businesses operating across state borders.

It has been challenged sporadically, but the Supreme Court, while acknowledging baseball is now inter-state commerce, has basically said it's up to the government to remove the exemption, if they want to. This has been instigated: in 1998, the Curt Flood Act revoked baseball's exemption, but only in matters dealing with labor relations. And at the end of 2001, in legislation sponsored by Minnesota senators Paul Wellstone and Mark Dayton, when the Twins were contraction targets - though their attempts were narrowly focused, specifically on the powers wielded with regard to contracting teams, and fizzled out when the contraction plans were withdrawn.

Has to be said, one of the effects, probably positive, has been to prevent the kind of manic franchise-hopping seen in other sports. Since 1971, only one baseball team has moved: the Expos to Washington. How many NFL, NBA or NHL teams have jumped ship over that period - usually in a dash for cash? But this exemption does apparently also allow the negotiation of monopolistic contracts, like the one being negotiated with DirecTV, which may not be in the interests of baseball fans. However, the presence of MLB.tv as an alternative (albeit, by most accounts, a second-rate alternative, with its share of technical bugs) may be sufficient to forestall any action by the legislative arm on this occasion.

Update: in the light of the first couple of comments, be interested to hear from other out-of-town fans, as to how they follow the fortunes of the D'backs. Extra Innings package? XM Radio? MLB.tv? Or a combination?