Sports

Should a Neutral-Site World Series Become Baseball’s New Normal?

ARLINGTON, Texas — The Los Angeles Dodgers and the Tampa Bay Rays gathered at Globe Life Field here Tuesday for the first game of the World Series, the 116th in history and the first at a neutral site. The Dodgers were the home team, more than 1,200 miles from their home.

“I’m sad that it didn’t happen at Dodger Stadium, because this game would have been at Dodger Stadium,” infielder Enrique Hernandez said after clinching the pennant in Game 7 of the National League Championship Series here on Sunday. “But the feeling is kind of still the same: We’re still going to the World Series.”

In football, of course, the Super Bowl is always held at a neutral site; 10 years ago it was right next door, at the Dallas Cowboys’ stadium. The World Series is here only because of the coronavirus pandemic — but if Scott Boras had his wish, this would be the start of a new tradition.

Boras, the most prominent agent in baseball, has called for a neutral-site World Series for at least a decade, once making the proposal in a letter to Bud Selig, the former commissioner. Selig replied politely, Boras said, but the idea went nowhere.

“Of course the big bugaboo was that it means so much to the local entities to have the World Series in their town,” Boras said in an interview on Monday. “And I said, ‘Yeah, but the detriment it’s causing the game — it’s like serving soup in your hand. I get that it’s soup, but your product is going to waste by doing it.”

Soup belongs in a bowl, as it happens, and in Boras’s vision, the Super Bowl should be a model for Major League Baseball.

“We have to be forward-thinking about how we create a game that has attention above all other sports,” he said. “It’s already given us an indication of what the current, traditional approach has provided, and that is that baseball does not receive the attention of the Super Bowl. Well, let’s create a product that does receive the attention of the Super Bowl, and let’s create something that allows for a World Series week and brings commerce and corporate interaction and all those things that come to a city for the Super Bowl — but we can actually deliver four to seven games as opposed to one.”

It is always tricky to measure the reach of the World Series. At the height of baseball’s popularity on television, the event still trailed the Super Bowl in the ratings, but not by much. The final game of the 1980 World Series (on a Tuesday night) drew a 40.0 rating, the highest in World Series history. Three months later, Super Bowl XV drew a 44.4.

Super Bowl ratings have held relatively steady despite the proliferation of TV networks; February’s game got a 41.6 rating. But World Series ratings have fallen sharply, with last year’s averaging an 8.1, or about 13.9 million viewers. (The estimated audience for the 1980 finale was 54.8 million.)

ImagePlaying at a neutral site allows the N.F.L. to plan grand spectacles for the Super Bowl, like the halftime show at this year’s game.
Credit…Tyler Kaufman/Associated Press

Even so, the first five games of the 2019 World Series helped Fox to the most-watched week for any network since the Super Bowl eight months earlier. Networks still crave postseason baseball, especially the World Series, and M.L.B. has no plans to alter it by moving future games to a neutral site.

In Boras’s opinion, though, M.L.B. should think bigger. But is it really worth sacrificing home crowds for a neutral-site spectacle, just to revive interest nationally in a sport that now thrives more locally?

“Not nationally, internationally,” Boras said. “You have the ability to attract people to our national pastime worldwide, because they know where it’s going to be, and they can plan.”

Boras emphasized the word pageantry, envisioning a weeklong extravaganza that encompasses an awards ceremony, a home run derby, entertainment and elaborate viewing parties throughout the host city.

“We attract a gala for seven days where people can attend one game out of six or seven and still feel involved,” he said. “They can watch at forums, corporate parties, sponsorship — you can really create a World Series week.”

Crucial to the plan, Boras said, would be to play all the games consecutively with no days off, like this year’s league championship series. Doing so would feed viewers’ appetite for binge watching — “This is the best Netflix series you could ever want,” he said — while highlighting the importance of a deep roster, theoretically increasing the likelihood that the best teams would win.

For the first time since 2013, the World Series does feature the two teams with the best record from each league. But Boras, who has signed current or former clients like Gerrit Cole, Bryce Harper and Alex Rodriguez to groundbreaking free agent contracts, said the Rays are an anomaly, with few highly paid free agents besides starter Charlie Morton, who signed a two-year, $30 million contract before last season.

“You hear the talk about what they’ve done to put their team together, but to me, analytics have created a base camp philosophy, and that is, they’re really not in the process to get to the summit,” he said. “You have to have oxygen to get to the summit, and that’s free agency. You’ve got to have the superstars; you’ve got to have those special people to get to the top.”

The Rays are no fluke; they had the American League’s best earned run average last year, at 3.65, and trailed only Cleveland among A.L. teams this year, at 3.56. But Boras said the truncated regular season had given the Rays an edge this October.

“In this 60-game schedule, when your relievers are only throwing 20 or 30 innings, you can now not have starters and win,” he said. “Throw relievers for three innings, and basically do two or three of those in one game and another game, and it creates a falsity of baseball that we know is not true over a 162-game schedule.”

Whatever the reasons for their success, the Rays have become a model for the industry by winning with low payrolls. Several big-market teams have poached Tampa Bay executives to lead their baseball operations, including the Dodgers (Andrew Friedman), the Boston Red Sox (Chaim Bloom) and the Houston Astros (James Click).

The free-agent market was strong last winter — led by Boras clients like Cole, Anthony Rendon and Stephen Strasburg — but after a regular season without ticket sales, some teams may be less aggressive this time. That could be one industry aftershock of the pandemic.

As for the appetite for a neutral-site World Series, that will be hard to gauge from this year’s, given the limits on ticket sales (11,500 per game) and restrictions on the kinds of gatherings Boras imagines. But if the concept seems radical, another idea that intrigues him has roots that stretch to 1903.

“We started with best-of-nine,” Boras said, “and I think there was something to that for a true championship.”

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