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The State of Baseball in the South

By Patrick Snow

(editor's note:  Swampland Sports considers the following teams to be part of the Footprint:  Atlanta Braves, Baltimore Orioles, Cincinnati Reds, Florida Marlins, Houston Astros, St. Louis Cardinals, Tampa Bay Rays, Texas Rangers, and Washington Nationals)

I do want to sound too negative about a game that I absolutely love, but I am definitely concerned about America’s Pastime in our Swampland Footprint. There has been a lot of success for our teams over the past 10-15 years. From the Braves amazing run to the Cardinals championship from last year to the Marlins two World Series titles to the Killer B’s in Houston, Major League Baseball made great strides in the South during the 1990's/early 2000’s. However, the forecast for many of our teams looks pretty cloudy moving forward. The problems range from the mismanagement of teams, to having lower payrolls than the mega-markets (New York, Boston, Chicago), to the shrinking availability of televised games.

MLB must be a regional play in the South.  There is neither the MLB history nor the great population centers to support baseball within any individual market.   The three "traditional" regional players in the Footprint have been the Cincinnati Reds, the St Louis Cardinals, and the Atlanta Braves.  Each of these three now have new challenges as MLB evolves as a media entity.

The Braves, under the leadership of John Schuerholz and Bobby Cox, have been the model franchise of our region. They won an amazing 14 Division titles from 1991-2005 and were able to build Turner Field during that time. They have stayed successful, despite a shrinking payroll, by developing talent in their Minor League system (especially Georgia kids), concentrating their minor league system throughout the South, and building a regional fan base with their games on TBS.

My only concern for Atlanta’s near future (aside from pitching a little better) is the growing number of Southern fans who missing games due to either their cable provider or MLB’s arcane TV restrictions. The Braves used to have a built-in fan base around the region when an overwhelming majority of their games were on TBS, but that has all changed now that Time-Warner sold the Braves and Turner South which became SportsSouth, now owned by Fox.

Thanks to these changes, a Braves fan in Nashville cannot get any Atlanta games televised on SportSouth (not available on Comcast Cable) or local Atlanta television. Consequently, they try to buy the “MLB Extra Innings” package, but all Braves games (as well as Reds games) are blacked out because they are considered a local team. These types of conflicts are happening all over the country, and it’s not the way for Baseball to market their sport to a new generation of fans.

The Reds have just been a mess.  They have a great history, but they are not connecting.  Ownership has been a mess since Marge Schott.  Griffey Jr didn't make the impact they were hoping for either and his resistance to trades has only hamstrung the Reds further on a financial level.  As I just mentioned, the TV situation hasn't helped them either.

Looking at other teams that connect in the Footprint, we can start in the DC area.  The Baltimore Orioles used to be an elite franchise that covered much of the east coast through Virginia and into the Carolinas.  However, they have struggled for too long.  Much like the Reds, there are ownership issues.

The Washington Nationals have all kinds of potential.  Moving into a new park next year should help as should losing some of the financial restraints put in place when they moved from Montreal.  The issue for this team is how hard they will work in trying to build a following outside of the DC area.  If they follow the Redskins model, it would pay off for them.  For now, they need to focus on building a credible team.

The Texas teams are starting to lose identity within the Lone Star State. With the popularity of the Cowboys, Longhorns, and 3 Playoff-caliber NBA squads, both the Astros and Rangers must improve their performance to stay relevant in a flooded sports market. Houston changed management during the season, and they must find a new identity with the retirements of Biggio and Bagwell. A team in more trouble is the Rangers as they have not been able to develop much young talent as they compete in the tough American League. Losing a quality young slugger like Mark Teixeira is not the way to build confidence with your fans. The Rangers need to look at the way the Braves have drafted local players in order to re-establish a position in the Dallas market.

Both Florida teams seem to with the fact they play in the big money Eastern divisions, and they have not been able to reach stadium deals that would help them compete long-term. Additionally, the Cardinals have a huge fan base in places like Arkansas, Tennessee, Mississippi and Oklahoma, but they are in a state if flux with dismissal of their very successful GM Walt Jocketty. One factor that seems common among all of these teams is that they must rely on developing talent from within much like Colorado, Arizona, Milwaukee and Minnesota have done in recent seasons. The ability of teams to maintain a constant pipeline of “cheaper” talent along with some help from Major League Baseball on the television money will insure success in a crucial time for baseball in the South.

The state of baseball is pretty murky right now.  Swampland.com will be doing a dual Sports/Merchantry piece on the economic of baseball in the next week or so.  Maybe the power at MLB will take a moment and read.  The Footprint is too good a growth prospect ignore.

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