Thursday, March 31
Today is Opening Day for the MLB, and they have to be pinching themselves. For the first time since baseball returned from a debilitating strike, they have a legitimate chance to grow their sport.
What was once the hands-down, unquestioned holder of the title "America's Game" has become second-fiddle to the monster that the NFL has evolved into. I would argue that MLB strike or not, there was no stopping the NFL over the last decade. From the parity across the league, to the salary cap that compelled most teams to field rosters full of playmakers, to the craze of fantasy football...the NFL overtook the MLB like Darrell Green running down Tony Dorsett. Except instead of a touchdown-saving tackle, we saw a game-changing knockout.
Wasn't fantasy baseball the "original" fantasy game? Yet today, fantasy football dwarfs any other fantasy sport--it is perhaps bigger than the rest combined. I play them all too...fantasy golf, fantasy basketball and fantasy hockey (among others). If you don't have Ken Meringolo on your Fantasy Beirut team, good luck. But the NFL and the act of passionate fandom go together in fantasy football more perfectly than a famous athlete and a Kardashian sister. If you're like me, you might even care more about how the lockout affects fantasy football than how it affects the field of play.
Now, baseball has a real chance to attract the attention of the same fans they "lost" after their strike and then again after the steroids debacle. (I mean, once sluggers stopped juicing, a lot of people stopped watching. You have to love America.) Millions of fans like me--who have eschewed baseball over the last decade in favor of a 365-day NFL machine--will watch their local baseball teams a LOT more closely in April and May. And even though the Nationals might not be world-beaters, DC fans are very capable of embracing a losing team. We'll watch the featured games on ESPN because, well, we might have to know something about these teams in September when the MLB playoffs start and there is no football. My point: we might actually invest ourselves in the MLB season. Maybe. Major League Baseball is going to everything in its power to make sure we do.
Speaking of investing...or NOT investing:
I fielded a call from the Redskins ticket office today asking me about my season tickets for 2011. I chose to be straight up with the guy. I did not try and get smart or cute about it. I said, "Hey, I appreciate that you guys are getting your ducks in a row for 2011, but it is a cash management thing for me and my family, too. I simply cannot justify putting my money down for something that is not guaranteed at this point." They informed me that I would likely lose my place in line for season tickets. This was not a threat and I did not take it as such. I told the guy (who was one of the nicer individuals I have spoken to there in my time as a season ticket holder) that, "I fully understand and I know you guys have to do what you decide is in your best interests. I am choosing to not pay for the 2011 football season at this point and therefore I accept whatever consequences come as a result of that."
For many fans who have made the same decision, I know that when you hung up that phone, there was a second when you thought, "Wow...I never thought I would have that conversation."
Football fans across the country are choosing not to invest their money in the 2011 NFL season. Don't think for a second that when the NFL comes back, wallets won't reopen. They will. Millions of wallets will open. But it is the emotional investment that might not be there initially. Will America fall back in love with baseball in 2011? If so, the NFL will have to battle all over again for turf it spent years winning from the other major sports. General Patton is turning over in his grave.