On the field, the Arizona Diamondbacks are at the top of their game.
Last year the team beat the seemingly invincible New York Yankees in the World Series. The Diamondbacks reached the fall classic in just four years, a record for an expansion team.
To get there, the club cut no corners. It paid big salaries and built a $350 million luxury stadium, drawing some of the biggest crowds in baseball.
But off the field, the Phoenix franchise is one of the sport's biggest money losers, which begs the question: What do you have to do to make a buck in the Grand Ol' Game?
The reality, according to baseball executives and sports economists, is that the financial problems plaguing the major leagues are so entrenched that only a sweeping overhaul can return the game to health. But every avenue for substantive change is resisted by the owners, players or politicians, virtually ensuring problems for years to come.
In less than a decade, baseball's collective debt has grown from $593 million to $4.3 billion as teams spent beyond their means in a mad dash to keep pace with the Yankees, the richest in baseball. The Yankees not only have an unrivaled fan base but a huge local TV contract that allowed them to spend a record $140 million on player salaries this year, putting every other team at an instant disadvantage, especially those in smaller markets.
That dynamic has driven up annual salaries to an average of $2.3 million, a 90 percent jump in just five years. Teams across the country have built stunning new ballparks -- with the help of local taxpayers -- to draw bigger crowds to pay the rising bills, only to see aisles of empty seats in some of them. Even in cities where attendance remains solid, the money is not good enough to meet expenses. A half a dozen teams, which only a decade ago would have been snapped up, are quietly on the market with no buyers in sight.
Now looms the prospect of another strike, which would be the ninth since 1972. The last one, in 1994, shut down the World Series. Friday, the player's union is expected to take a vote on whether to set a date for a possible strike in the hopes of accelerating negotiations with the owners that have hit an impasse. The two sides are tackling such prickly issues as revenue sharing among teams, shrinking the number of clubs, drug testing and the stratospheric salaries.
But whatever new agreement ultimately is reached, the result probably will be something more akin to a bloop single than a game-winning home run.
"What's happening now is a repeat of 1994 because these same problems were never resolved," said Bruce K. Johnson, an economics professor at Centre College in Danville, Ky. "They are trying to put Band-Aids on the problem, and it's not a scratch. It's an illness that could be terminal if there's another strike and a mass exodus of fans."
Among the professional sports leagues -- the National Basketball Association, the National Football League and the National Hockey League -- only baseball has balked at modernizing its economic structure, one that requires little compromise or sacrifice.
"Baseball's economic model wasn't in place just before television or radio but before flight, before the internal combustion engine," said columnist George Will, a member of the 2000 Blue Ribbon Panel on Baseball Economics commissioned by the league.
In baseball, there are no limits on player paychecks as in the other sports. Big-market teams with sky-high local TV revenues, such as the Yankees, are not forced to pool large percentages of their money for the benefit of less fortunate clubs, as they are in the NBA and the NFL. Baseball also is the only league exempted from federal antitrust regulations, meaning that owners can control the number and location of teams as a monopoly would. Members of Congress, for their part, use the threat of revoking the exemption as way to obtain or save teams in their districts.
A complication underlying almost every proposal to fix the sport's finances is the deep lack of trust that has developed between players and owners over the years.
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