As Tom Hanks famously cautioned in “A League of Their Own,” there is “no crying in baseball.”
Disney must nonetheless be choking back a few tears over the Anaheim Angels. The company is actively shopping the World Series darlings, who have incurred tens of millions in losses since 1996. Let that be a lesson to any congloms who think a century-old game can be monetized on an eroding, splintered fan base.
The Angels sale is a stark reversal of the heady origin of the Mouse epoch, when wide-eyed boosterism had cheerleaders dancing on stadium dugouts and movie soundtracks blaring from the speakers. The tearjerker “Angels in the Outfield” was the tip of the synergistic iceberg, we were told.
Joe Roth even caught the synergy fever while running the film studio. He recently told the Wall Street Journal that he tried to persuade the Angels to sign pitcher Orlando “El Duque” Hernandez. Aside from bolstering the team’s pitching staff, Roth figured the Cuban refugee’s defection had the makings of a great movie for ABC. (Hernandez eventually signed with the Yankees.)
Baseball, unlike videogames or theme parks, tends to resist synergy. You cannot simply plug other bits of showbiz apparatus into the tradition-bound, anachronistic world of squeeze bunts and pitching duels. That is but one reason why it remains a grand, albeit compromised, game.
The difficulties in capitalizing on baseball — a reality soberly illustrated by waning TV ratings — extend beyond Orange County. News Corp. has had a handful with the Dodgers. Aside from its role in a shrewd regional television effort, the team has not been a boon to the bottom line.
Despite a hefty payroll, the Dodgers have not made the playoffs since 1996; in 2001, the team reported an operating loss of $45 million. AOL Time Warner, with the Braves, and the Tribune Co., with the Cubs, have fared a bit better, but at least in the Braves case, there are insiders who want out of the baseball arena.
Loss reports have been discounted by critics of the sport, who say accounting in baseball is no more reliable than that in Hollywood. Even so, congloms would be wise to adopt a new team motto: Play ball at your peril.