Summit News

Selig downplays '09 expectations

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig, whose sport is coming off a record year, downplayed expectations for the 2009 season, saying the game is no longer recession-proof with too much uncertainty to predict attendance or revenues.

Selig said he was concerned about how the sickly economy -- and the severe turmoil facing the three big U.S. automakers -- would affect the league’s 30 teams. He has cautioned owners to avoid being “too cocky” when setting ticket prices.

“There used to be a theory ... that we seemed almost to be recession proof,” Selig told the Reuters Media Summit on Tuesday. “This is different clearly, and so we’re going to be very sensitive.”

The Boston Red Sox, one of baseball’s biggest success stories, has decided not to raise ticket prices for the first time since 1994, while the Oakland A’s cut prices by an average of 5 percent.

“I’m still very confident we will do well,” said Selig, but referred to the current climate as “an era of great uncertainty” and a time of “economic disorientation.”

Pointing to the upheaval, Selig declined to forecast revenues or attendance for the upcoming season. Last year, he told the Reuters Summit he was expecting record revenues and attendance for 2008.

“I don’t think anybody in any business today, any form of entertainment, could really predict,” he said.

Fresh off a year when the sports league set a revenue record of $6.5 billion and nearly broke the 2007 attendance record, Selig and team executives gathered last month for a briefing from Paul Volcker, the former Federal Reserve chairman. Selig said similar briefings were under consideration for 2009.

“To think that all of this won’t have some kind of impact on the sport is probably unrealistic. But we don’t know what that is,” said Selig, who answered several questions on with “nobody knows,” “only time will tell” and “we’ll have to see.”

Bud Selig, Major League Baseball Commissioner, speaks at the Reuters Media Summit in New York, December 2, 2008. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid

Attendance reached 78.6 million in 2008, down from 79.5 million in 2007.

Hiring has been put on hold in the league offices, and the 2009 budget has been frozen, Selig said.

He has also spoken to sponsors after Deutsche Post AG division DHL US Express recently approached one of team to ask to withdraw from or alter its marketing arrangement. The league will have a better idea early next year about whether sponsorship revenue will be hurt.

Baseball officials will work to help sponsors, but Selig said it had not reached the point where any companies were asking to rework or be released from their contracts.

Meanwhile, during the current off-season free-agent market, teams are expected to sign a couple of big stars, including pitcher C.C. Sabathia, to contracts worth more than $100 million.

Selig touted the potential of the league’s MLB TV Network, which will debut on January 1 with about 50 million subscribers, a strong number for a start-up network.

The network will initially air 26 regular-season games as well as the World Baseball Classic tournament in March, when teams from several countries compete.

Selig hopes the channel -- in which Time Warner Cable Inc, Comcast Corp, Cox Communications and DirecTV Group Inc hold stakes -- will be profitable immediately.

He said MLB began selling commercial time over the past couple weeks, but acknowledged it was a difficult climate for the new network. He added that no major advertisers had signed up yet.

Selig signed a three-year extension in January after previously saying he would soon retire. That extended contract runs through 2012.

“I’m going to be 78 years old” at the end of the contract, he said. “If anybody thinks I’m doing it after that ... I know, I’ve said it seven times and I understand all the concerns, and you are right to have them, but this time I’m done. I’ve got four more years. That’s enough.”

Reporting by Ben Klayman and Paul Thomasch; editing by Jeffrey Benkoe