Mention the name, Bob Costas, and there are few in
America, let alone the sports world, that dont know him. But, its
after the acknowledgment of the man that the view shifts. Some may see him as a
broadcaster. Some see him and think of the Olympics. Some see him as a
personality that transcends sports into the world of one-on-one interviews from
his show on MSNBC, Internight, or the Bob Costas
Interview on Dateline NBC and Today, or his show
"On the Record" on
HBO and yes, some see him as a baseball luminary and scholar.
His book, Fair Ball - a Fans Case for Baseball has been a
best seller, and he has been mentioned as a possible candidate for the position
of Commissioner of Major League Baseball.
What was discovered in
conversation with the man, is that his knack for reaching people through the
one-way medium of television or print, is not limited to the media, but rather
something natural and unscripted.
Growing up in New York as a diehard
Mantle fan, he has become a statesman for what the game of baseball means
historically (Ken Burns Baseball) and in his knowledge of the game
from a business perspective (key interview subject for a recent Outside
The Lines on ESPN, and the aforementioned Fair
In this extensive interview with OSC, Costas touches on the
relocation of the Expos, ballpark development, marketing MLB, the power
structure between MLB and the Players Union, whether hes interested
in being Commissioner of Major League Baseball, the effect of an MLB team in DC
on the Orioles, and how MLB in Portland could possibly realign the League for
the better. Maury Brown
Team Payroll and the Wildcard System
OSC: We just witnessed a young Marlins team beat a
vaunted Yankees team in the World Series. Given the fact that the Marlins
payroll was 1/3 the size of the Yankees, is there too much emphasis placed on
team payroll as a barometer for winning?
Costas: No, there isn't too much emphasis placed on
With the Wildcard and three divisions and always the possibility of
catching lightning in a bottle, it doesn't follow that the teams with the
highest payrolls will always be in the World Series, or the teams with the
relatively low payrolls can't upset the apple cart, but over time that's the
way it plays out.
If you have poor management and a high payroll, you
might get nothing. If you have a relatively low payroll and good management,
and a lot of luck, you might do well for a period of time. But, all things
being even close to equal, high payrolls make a huge
If Billy Beane, the GM of the Oakland A's, had an identical
twin brother, and you made one of them the GM of the Braves; or the Dodgers; or
the Yankees; or the Mets; or the Red Sox, and you left the other Billy Beane in
Oakland, over a 5-year spread the other Billy Beane would have more to play
OSC: Since we're talking about Billy Beane,
will his stock be diluted if he moves to a franchise with a higher payroll
Costas: Yeah, because then he
could never exceed expectations. He can only meet expectations.
OSC: Given the fact that we've had two Wildcard teams
win the World Series back-to-back, do you see the Wildcard system as a way for
teams that performed marginally in the regular season to capture lightning in a
bottle and make the regular season less dramatic?
Costas: Yeah, there's no question about it.
Wildcard can sometimes yield good story lines. There's no question that the
Florida Marlins were a good story line. And sometimes a team that's a Wildcard
is playing as well as anybody, or better, come August or September.
the objection of the Wildcard was never that a Wildcard team wasn't good enough
to be in the post-season tournament or couldn't win it.
for thoughtful fans was, that it destroyed the concept of a pennant race. As
long as you have a Wildcard you can't have a true pennant race, because there's
not an "all or nothing" aspect to finishing first in your Division, unless the
pace of the Division is so slow that first place team would have lesser record
than the Wildcard.
Otherwise, the Wildcard undermines the excitement of
a close divisional race that goes to the wire. And, it actually penalizes teams
that win their divisions in a blow-out, like the Braves or the Giants, because
they get no significant advantage once the playoffs start over a mediocre
division winners or the Wildcard. That's the real objection.
contrast between that, and let's say, football - could Wildcard team go to the
Super Bowl? Yeah, and God bless them if they do, because they have to go a
tougher road - they have to play an extra game - they're on the road all the
time. Whereas teams that do better during the regular season get a first-round
bye, perhaps, which is a huge advantage. Then they have homefield throughout
the Playoffs, and since Playoff round in football is only one game, that
homefield is 100%. It's not one extra game out of 5, or 1 extra game out of 7.
Now, they're (MLB) never going to
change this playoff format, at least not in the next couple of years. Because,
by luck, this playoff format this year, coughed up the Red Sox, the Cubs, the
Yankees, and a great story line with the Marlins; and all the Series went the
limit; and they all had compelling story lines. And so, if they fiddled with
the format, the superficial reaction would be, "Hey, why are you messing up a
good thing?" But, it's exactly the same format that produced relatively
uninteresting post-seasons in the past, and relatively low ratings on
television in the past.
What they (MLB) really should do, is seed the
playoffs in a way that makes sense. Not eliminate the Wildcard necessarily, but
create a distinction between being the Wildcard and being a team that wins its
The Relocation of the Expos
indeed MLB relocates the Montreal Expos, as MLB is currently looking to do, the
Expos appear to be going into either a brand new market, or a market that
hasn't seen MLB in 30 years. Sports economists, like Andrew Zimbalist, believe
that stadiums in existing markets are not economic drivers.
placement of a team in one of these new markets is essentially a different
paradigm, is it possible that those views may not be correct in this
Costas: I think that there are
not enough test cases to measure this second circumstance that you outline. I
respect Zimbalist, but if that is actually his view, I disagree with it to this
I think that new stadiums in existing markets, of late, are
less of an economic driver than they have been. You don't get the same
proportionate jump that Baltimore got with Camden Yards or that Cleveland got
with Jacobs Field, but certainly Pittsburgh is in a better position than they
were. Is it a panacea? No.
But Pittsburgh is in a better position than
they were. Milwaukee is in a better position than they were. I just don't think
that it's going to be as much of a leg up as it was in the past, especially
because the novelty of these new stadiums wears off quicker.
Baltimore got it; when Jacobs Field got it; when Colorado got their new
stadium, they stood out on the landscape. Now they are becoming more and more
common place. Plus, when Baltimore and Cleveland got their stadiums, it was
before the huge explosion of cable revenue negated some of that advantage. So,
when Baltimore got the stadium and Cleveland got theirs, they made up a huge
amount of the gulf between them and the Yankees. Then, the gulf exploded again
when the Yankees tapped into the additional cable revenues that Cleveland and
Baltimore and almost every market have available to them. So would Kansas City
be better off with a new stadium? Yeah, they'd be better off. Would they be in
the same league as the Yankees? No.
OSC: The Expos played 22
games in Puerto Rico last season, and in conjunction with those games, the team
played Interleague in the AL West setting up a marathon travel arrangement.
There seems to be a good chance that another 22 games will be played in Puerto
Rico again this season.
If done correctly, is the extra payroll
incentive enough to keep the team competitive without draining the team due to
Costas: Well, you almost have to.
It's a trade off.
In order to maintain some level of interest, as you
say, you come up with the revenues that could drive their payrolls up a little
bit, you have to make that sacrifice. Otherwise, to go through another dreary
season in Montreal, and if playing those games in Puerto Rico means you have a
chance to keep Vladimir Guerrero, I think they're better off with Vladimir
Guerrero and some jet lag, than without Guerrero and no jet lag.
Obviously, the whole thing is a temporary situation that has gone on
way too long. They have to solve this thing, and it is very clear they are
treading water because they don't want to make a rash move, and for the long
run, settle for something that isn't their best possible deal. They'd rather
take another hit for a year, or even two, in Montreal until the perfect
situation develops someplace else.
OSC: How does
Portland factor into this situation?
Costas: One thing, I think, is an ideal scenario -- and I am
not in a position to evaluate the merits of all the pitches that will be made
to baseball for the Expos -- but, let's say economically that the Portland bid
makes sense. If the Portland bid makes sense, it fits in a more logical way, in
terms of baseball alignments, with the Expos moving into the American League
West, which has only 4 teams, and becoming a Portland entry into the American
League West. So, now you balance that Division, in that they are all
geographically approximate to Seattle, and Oakland - and it just makes sense.
And at the same time, you would take a team out of the National League Central,
either Cincinnati, or Pittsburgh - probably Pittsburgh, and move
them into the National League East. So, that six team Division (the NL Central)
would again be five, and that team would replace the Expos and you'd have three
geographically sensible, five team Divisions in each
OSC: While we're
touching on this subject, do you feel that there's any merit to the argument
that Peter Angelos makes that a team in the DC area dilutes both
Costas: I do. But obviously
there's a self-interest argument there. But, it's also valid. When they're that
close together, and especially if one or both of those teams isn't very good,
then one or both will suffer.
OSC: If a city comes
up with most of the public funding for a stadium, would you consider that a
decisive consideration for the relocation of the Expos?
Costas: I don't know if alone it's decisive, but I think
Marketing MLB, and the health of
OSC: MLB used a new marketing campaign
this past season that said, "I live for this". This seems somewhat online with
the NBA's use of the catch phrase, "I love this game".
What can MLB do
to foster marketing growth in small to mid-markets, while retaining its
Costas: I used to think
that, because of my regard for the idea of a pennant race, or the integrity of
the regular season -- I used to think that the way they had scrambled things in
the mid 90's and tossed in the Wildcard was an entirely negative thing.
Now, I am not sure it is an entirely negative thing because you have to
leave in the reality of modern baseball. And to hold up the Marlins; to hold up
Kansas City or Minnesota, who happen to be luckily situated in a division that
wouldn't exist without three divisions. So, you can say they had a chance and
they were in the race for a while. Whereas if you stuck them in a division that
had Oakland or Seattle or the Yankees or Boston they had no chance.
One of the things they can sell, to these smaller
markets, is that the Wildcard, and at least certain divisional line-ups, give
most teams a shot. I don't know what you tell Tampa Bay in the same division as
the Yankees, or what you tell Toronto, but you can sell it on that basis and
they can sell baseball over all on the basis of what happened in this
[MLB needs] to seize upon the momentum of this postseason
and how great it was. And if they are smart, they will try to sell it with a
combination of how this year was "modern baseball" meeting "traditional
baseball". The histories of the Red Sox and the Cubs; the tradition of the
Yankees, but yet the excitement of multiple rounds of playoffs -- and the
Marlins in, and new blood in -- it was sort of old meets new, with the best of
both worlds. That should be their approach.
OSC: There was a point in the League's
history when the pendulum was swung all the way in favor of ownership, with the
players having very little power. Then in 1975, Messersmith and McNally, along
with Marvin Miller changed the face of baseball, and the pendulum has been
moving in favor of the players' union ever since.
Recently there has
been the appearance of fiscal restraint on the part of ownership, and the union
in concert with the League, agreed to expanded revenue sharing on both the
local level and within the Central fund.
Is this good will something
that can be sustained for more than the length of this CBA?
Costas: I think it depends, quite a bit, on the
I think that Don Fehr and Gene
Orza have been brilliant and they've always operated with honesty -- they can't
be accused of some of the dishonest or contradictory stances that have been
taken by ownership in the past.
But, there's a difference in being
"capable" and being "honest" and being "reasonable". And as great as they have
been over time with their membership basically they are connected to the whole
mentality and the whole paradigm that was set forth by Marvin Miller back in
the days that you mentioned when the players really were taken advantage of.
I think even the little bit they conceded this time around -- that gave
ownership a small victory. They conceded it very, very reluctantly. And they
knew two things, that most of the membership did not have the stomach for
another strike. And, that even if they won in the strike and got favorable
terms when the strike eventually ended, the damage that would be done to
baseball in the public mind would so depress baseball's revenues that it would
diminish the amount of those revenues that would flow to the membership.
I think that's the reason they did not go on strike.
Not because they thought the owners had a legitimate point, or they
really cared about reforming the game in a reasonable way; just because they
didn't have a stronger hand to play as in the past.
That's why I've
always said, even though Commissioner Selig has to be credited with a lot of
things -- he's been an active commissioner -- some people take shots at him but
he has a lot of accomplishments behind him. But I still think the game will be
better off when you have entirely different faces representing both the owners
and the players, who don't carry the baggage of all the past battles and some
of the grudges and some of the premises that are no longer valid. You need
people who can look at it with a fresh eye, and still represent their
constituencies, but at the same time not feel like it's a capitulation to say,
"Hey, this is what's good for the game overall."
Beyond the ratings, and the overall popularity of the sport, Baseball was
once viewed as microcosm for our Nation in terms of temperament and its
dynamic. Things have obviously changed in the 100+ years that game has existed.
Has the NFL and the NBA supplanted MLB in terms of the pace in which
the games are played, and in some ways mirrored American society?
Costas: Well, there is no doubt about that,
we're a "short attention span" culture, and regular season baseball, at least,
doesn't have the immediate tension of the playoffs.
baseball can't hold the attention of as many people as it once did, especially
because you have "Baseball Tonight" and "Sports Center" on ESPN and all kinds
of highlights, and the Internet; so you can tap into the highlights of the game
at almost anytime. So there's no doubt that baseball has been hurt a little bit
On the other hand, I think people are too quick to say that
the NBA has surpassed baseball. If baseball had anything like the ratings of
the last NBA finals the sky would be falling. I've always been an NBA fan. I
like the NBA. I'm going to the Suns game tonight, but I don't think the basic
core support for the NBA runs as deep as that of baseball. And when Jordan and
Bird and Magic went and if you have the Spurs and the Nets in the Finals you
see that a lot of that interest falls off.
I think it is clear that
football is the most popular sport. It has a lot of advantages that no matter
what baseball does, marketing wise, it can never match. They play one game a
week and it is a game ideally suited to television. Their playoffs are all Game
7's, because there is only one game. The seventh game, or the fifth game of the
Divisional Series in baseball always will have a higher rating than the other
games. Well, with football every game is a deciding game in the playoffs. And
they are all played at the time of the year; in January in the winter; Sundays,
Saturday nights when people watch television. You have the gambling aspect -
football just has advantages as a television sport that baseball and other
At the same time, people talk about the golden age of
I grew up in New York. In 1961, with a pennant winning team;
and the tradition of the Yankees; and the Dodgers and Giants gone; and the Mets
not yet in existence; and Maris and Mantle chasing Babe Ruth's record; and a
box seat costing $3.50 in Yankee Stadium, the Yankees did not draw 2 million
fans. They drew like 1.7 or 1.8 [million fans]. Now, even teams that are
thought to be struggling draw 2 million fans. Some draw upwards of 3 million
fans. The overall attendance, in baseball, is so much greater than it was, even
a generation ago.
And, the overall revenues of the game have more than
doubled since the early 1990s. The problem isn't that the game has insufficient
popularity or revenues, the problem is that the game has an imperfect economic
system, which often renders any amount of revenue, in the long run, inadequate.
You know, they get another source of revenue and they flush it right down the
Look what happened when NBC lost baseball in the late 1980s. CBS
comes in with this enormous deal for baseball, so the revenues are
exponentially increased, but they frittered it all away immediately when the
salary structure just immediately exploded right after that. At that time the
top paid player made about $2 million a year. Within a couple of years you had
dozens and dozens of players making $5 million a
The future of Bob Costas
OSC: There has been a lot of talk about you possibly
becoming a candidate for Commissioner of MLB once Bud Selig steps down. Has the
thought crossed your mind?
Costas: I have
never been coy about it. Never led anyone to believe it. Never have said
anything like, "Well, maybe", or "Gee, they will never ask me," so it is a mute
point. I have always flatly said I am not interested. I am not qualified. And I
use the example that if someone's a good political columnist that doesn't mean
you think he or she should be Senator or President. It's just that you think
they have something to say about the affairs of the day. I am a commentator
about baseball and if people think anything I say about baseball is of
interest, then fine, toss it into the debate on the subject. But, I am not and
never will be someone that should be considered for
OSC: This World Series marked the end
of Roger Clemens career. How does he rate in the pantheon of other great
Costas: He's probably one of the
five or six greatest starting pitchers of all time, by any measure.
OSC: Finally, do you miss calling the games, and if
so, when will we see you return to the booth?
Costas: Well, the earliest that NBC could reacquire baseball
would be the 2007 season, because it is all on Fox 2006 and luckily I think the
number one team on Fox does a very good job. And I miss it a little bit but not
a lot. I am very philosophical about this stuff. I have had wonderful
opportunities in my career and no one wants to hear me complain about