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Bad sports



It was eight years ago that the boys of summer traded their wooden bats for picket signs and initiated a strike that would result in the first cancellation of the World Series since the format was formalized in 1905.

Not only did that strike cost Montreal what would likely have been their first National League pennant and World Series championship, it critically wounded professional baseball in its most vital of organs – it seems that the fans, the lifeblood of the game, were not as diehard as the players and owners had believed.

Overall attendance dropped in major league ballparks, and then recovered three years after the strikes, but for some teams the fans never came back.

The Toronto Blue Jays, who boasted World Series wins in 1992 and 1993, were one of those teams.

The SkyDome used to break baseball attendance records almost nightly, and the city emerged as a respectable baseball town. It was unusual to have less than 30,000 people at a Blue Jays game, even against the worst teams in the league. Now it is a rare event for the club to play to more than 20,000 fans. Worse, television ratings in Toronto are at their lowest since the franchise opened in 1977. The team lost in excess of $55 million US last year, and expects to lose about the same this year, with a payroll of $70 million US to support.

Now major league baseball owners want to take drastic measures. The 30 league franchises claim to have lost $238 million US last year. Even the World Series champions, the Arizona Diamondbacks, lost nearly $20 million US.

The owners say the economics of the sport have changed. Not every team can boast a fan base like the New York Yankees or Texas Rangers any longer, and only a handful of teams can afford a payroll over $100 million US. The result is that teams either have to cough up the eight-digit salaries that the top players are demanding, or accept the fact that they don’t have a snowball’s chance in hell of making the World Series. The fans know pointless when they see it, and they stay away in droves.

At the same time, the last major league player contracts expired last November, and the players are once again threatening to strike if their demands aren’t met – not now of course, but in the fall when the playoffs are in full swing.

The major league issues are major league contraction (eliminating poor performing teams like Montreal, Milwaukee, Minnesota, Florida and Tampa), a "luxury tax" on teams with payrolls in excess of $98 million, increased revenue sharing, and more flexible salary arbitration for teams.

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