Whatever your thoughts on the wild card, interleague play, and even the MLB Network, they’ve all been profitable for baseball as well. Selig, thanks to his ultraselective vetting of new owners (sorry, Mark Cuban, but if you don’t have a friend in MLB offices, you’re not getting in), has fostered unprecedented unanimity among the game’s 30 disparate owners; unlike in the NFL, the flowing cash has kept owners content rather than bloodthirsty. (Or at least not too bloodthirsty.) Baseball, unlike football, does not have a golden-goose problem. And the players, who have guaranteed contracts, pension plans, generous medical plans, and the kind of job security you see in no other league, are happy too. This has all been done in nine years. In 2002, baseball was heading toward a labor disaster the same way the NFL and the NBA currently are. It was averted. Now the sport everyone loves to complain about—including its fans; mostly its fans—is more stable than any other. It’s grand alchemy.
The cash, of course, makes a big difference. How’s this: The MLB is close to passing the NFL—the supposed Goliath of American sports—in total revenue, last year reaching $6.6 billion for 2009, just behind the NFL’s $8 billion. In 2000, baseball’s revenue was half that. Baseball is catching up. And it’s doing it stealthily, while achieving labor peace and competitive balance, with nine different champions in the past ten years.
It hasn’t all been backroom deals, either. Confident because of his recent successes, Selig is starting to take charge more over the owners, particularly in the case of the Los Angeles Dodgers. One of Selig’s rare mistakes of the past few years was allowing Frank McCourt, a highly leveraged, not nearly wealthy enough real-estate developer, to buy the Dodgers. McCourt, already short on cash, then went through a nasty divorce and, in order to make payroll, took a loan from Fox, the team’s television partner. Seeing a potential disaster brewing, Selig took control of the Dodgers, reclaiming some stability for one of baseball’s signature franchises. Compare this to the way Goodell has allowed the Buffalo Bills to twist in the wind, with the aging owner’s family batting their eyes seductively at Los Angeles, or, even worse, the way NBA commissioner David Stern treated Seattle when it lost its team to Oklahoma City or the way he’s treating poor Sacramento now. Goodell and Stern stood idly by or even assisted in the heists. Selig stepped in to help. That’s not something he does willy-nilly, mind you; he has wisely stayed mostly out of the Mets-Wilpon-Madoff mess, other than assuring that payroll will be met as the issue sorts itself out in the courts.
Bud Selig will always be a polarizing figure. Baseball fans fall into two camps: those who think he is a malevolent idiot and those who think he is merely an idiot. (And don’t get me started on the proposal to add a second wild-card team.) But when you clear out the public-relations gaffes and the ugly ties, Goodell and Stern would love to be in Selig’s position right now, with happy owners, happy players, and more fans than ever. Yep, ole Bud had a few tricks up his sleeve after all, even if that sleeve belongs to a twenty-year-old off-the-rack suit from Sears covered in taco sauce. He’s a slob like a fox.