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Two fading titans

by  in Comic News Comment
Two fading titans

The World Series ended last week.  The St. Louis Cardinals defeated the Detroit Tigers, 4 games to 1.  You are forgiven for not knowing this information, because, apparently, very few people in the United States know this information, based on the ratings.  More people watch cooking shows airing at midnight than watched the World Series.  And, of course, baseball pundits (for those of you who don’t know what I’m talking about, the two teams play baseball), have been pondering it ever since.

You know where I’m going with this.  Baseball and comics share some interesting similarities.  Both are far less popular than they used to be, and everyone seems to know why, but no one does anything about it.  I’m certainly not going to offer any solutions, because I’m not terribly bright, but I do want to look at some of the issues facing these two pastimes.

St. Louis and Detroit should have been a good series, if not great.  The Cardinals and Tigers are two storied franchises in excellent baseball towns.  St. Louis has won more World Series than any other franchise except for the Franchise Which Shall Not Be Named, and Detroit has had its share of success in the past.  The people who played for these franchises are legendary to baseball fans: Ty Cobb, Sam Crawford (Wahoo Sam!), Charlie Gehringer, Hal Newhouser, Denny McClain, Mickey Lolich, Alan Trammell, Jack Morris, Grover Cleveland Alexander, Jesse Haines, Dizzy Dean, Joe Medwick, Stan Musial, Enos Slaughter, Bob Gibson, Ozzie Smith.  The Tigers were the feel-good story of the year in baseball – they hadn’t had a winning season in over a decade and they lost 119 games three years ago, but this year they put it all together and defeated the Evil Empire in the first round of the playoffs.  The Cardinals are managed by a “genius” who until last week had only managed to win one World Series despite having several shots at it.  It should have been a good series.

But it wasn’t.  I don’t blame the ratings for being so low – these games sucked, unless you were a Cardinals fan, I suppose, because your team won.  Sometimes, four-game sweeps feature four exciting games.  Sometimes, all the games stink.  This year, all the games stunk.  And the viewers stayed away in droves.  Dancing With the Stars was on, man!

And then the teeth-gnashing began.  What to do, what to do?  Why are the ratings in the toilet and likely to stay there?  And the pundits pundited.  I listen to The Dan Patrick Show on ESPN Radio often, because it’s on when I pick my daughter up from school.  He has Keith Olbermann on for an hour every day.  Say what you will about Olbermann’s politics (I love him, but he’s wildly partisan, so many do not), but he knows sports.  He and Patrick were discussing the state of the game, and I was fascinated by the similarities between what they were saying and the state of the four-color world we all know and love.

Olbermann was talking about the “good old days,” when World Series games were events.  People took off work, kids ran home from school (or ditched) to gather around transistor radios (how quaint!) and listen to the games.  Now, however, people have so many more choices for their entertainment dollar, and they are finding other ways to spend it.  Sound familiar?

The kid factor is another issue.  Baseball isn’t doing enough to reach out to the children.  According to the commissioner, Bud Selig, the ratings for night playoff games is better than for day playoff games, so screw the kids – we’re going to pander to the hardcore fan base!  Well, the ratings might be better at night, but they’re pretty shitty regardless.  Baseball has driven away a good two generations of children who no longer care about the game, not because they don’t like baseball, but because they can’t stay up late enough to watch it.  Football games, you’ll recall, start in the afternoon, and that includes the Championship Games (the Super Bowl doesn’t count, because it’s a pure media event anymore).  The NFL, you’ll note, has no ratings problems whatsoever.

Baseball also has problems with the length of the games.  The pre-game hype for the World Series is ridiculous.  Not as ridiculous as before the Super Bowl, but again, that’s one game.  The start times for the World Series games keep creeping back, and the games last much longer than they used to.  You might even say they’re … written for the trade!  The most dramatic moments in World Series games now occur, on the East Coast, long after 11:30 at night (here in the desert, they end before 9 o’clock, which is nice).  People have to work, you know, and who the hell wants to stay up that late?  Games drag on, and although I like baseball, there are long stretches where nothing happens.  Hmmm … again, sound familiar?

Price doesn’t come into it, of course, because watching baseball on television is free.  If the ratings keep going down, however, it will end up on ESPN, which technically is not free, even though most houses probably have it on basic cable these days.  Going to a game has become much more expensive, though, and with 162 games a year, plus all the postseason games (if your team is good; I root for the Phillies, so nobody ever has to worry about that), the cost becomes prohibitive.  As recently as the 1980s, I went to baseball games with my grandfather at which the tickets cost $5.  They were shitty seats in a shitty stadium (Veterans Stadium was one of those toilet-bowl multi-purpose places that were the shit back in the 1970s, when it was built), but it was a thoroughly enjoyable experience.  The last time I went to a baseball game (a few years ago, in Phoenix to watch the Phillies play the Diamondbacks), it cost something around $25.  The seats were far better, but that’s a huge increase in twenty years.  This prices families, usually, right out of the market, and leaves only the hardcore fans who will pay anything to get their fix.  Hmmm …

In baseball, there is too much product.  There are 30 teams in Major League Baseball, each playing 162 games.  Would anyone be all that depressed if ten teams went away?  Nobody would miss the Marlins, if their attendance is to be believed.  Same with the Devil Rays, the Diamondbacks (they won a World Series in 2001, the only Arizona team with a professional championship, and still nobody cares), the Royals, probably the Rockies (they once drew fans, but no longer), even the Braves, if their attendance is to be believed.  With 30 teams, you get a lot of players who simply do not deserve to be in the major leagues.  Check out your favorite team’s roster and marvel at the worthless players on it.  How many of them really deserve to be making a million dollars a year?  Then, the playoffs begin, and the weather gets crappy, and we have the first round, then the second round, then the World Series.  A few more rainouts last week and a more competitive series and they’d be playing in November.  Baseball in November.  Ridiculous.

I won’t make the “too much product” argument about all comics, because I love the choices we have, but with regard to the Big Two (and that’s really what we’re talking about, because the other publishers – Dark Horse and Image included – are in no position to influence the market), there is.  DC and Marvel continually throw new books out there with no advance marketing and no plans to get them into the hands of the consumer.  Let’s face it, a BUNCH of books could go away tomorrow and even the people who read them wouldn’t miss them all that much.  There are very few books that I, personally, would bemoan if they disappeared, and zero of them are the superhero books that are the market’s bread-and-butter.  That’s not to say they aren’t entertaining, but with so many books, they all blur together eventually.  Yes, we need more comics, but one thing we don’t need are more superheroes.  Yet whenever the Big Two flood the market with books, they give us iterations of superheroes.  Let’s take … Mighty Avengers, which might see print at some point.  Won’t it be the Tampa Bay Devil Rays of the superhero market?

The similarities don’t end there.  I would argue that both comics and baseball (although baseball to a lesser extent) have never been better.  Comics, I have long argued, are in a Golden Age far greater than the one we all call “The Golden Age.”  You can argue sales all you want, and that’s certainly part of it, but for the past 25 years or so the kinds of comics you can buy relatively easily has blossomed, and comic-book ideas are starting to infiltrate the “mainstream” in such a way that a lot of consumers don’t even realize it.  What is Lost but a long-running adventure comic book that probably reads better in the trade (DVD)?  Greg Hatcher mentioned Heroes a few weeks back (I have all the episodes on DVR but haven’t watched them yet, because I’m slow).  So comics are, perversely, enjoying a Renaissance even as sales plummet.  In baseball, I’m typically much older-school than is probably healthy (Nap Lajoie is the BEST, man!), but I won’t argue that the players – even the really shitty ones – are probably much better than they used to be.  First, look at a team photograph from 60 years ago.  Hey, where are all the black people?  The lack of minorities meant that the best players might not even have made it to the major leagues.  And with conditioning and strength training and technological advances, today’s players (the ones not injecting various illegal chemicals into their butts, at least) would dominate if you sent them back in time.  Send one of today’s shortstops, like Jimmy Rollins – who isn’t even a big-hitting shortstop, just a pretty good one – back to 1920 and he would hit 50 home runs.  Bring a shortstop from the 1920s – Rabbit Marinville, let’s say, just because I like the name “Rabbit,” forward in time, and he not only wouldn’t be a Hall of Famer, he might not make the club.

It’s ironic, then, that these two American cultural touchstones are suffering.  Not only suffering, but dying slowly before our eyes.  Olbermann was making a plea for baseball owners to forego today’s profits for tomorrow’s investments, but he admitted that probably wasn’t going to happen.  He wanted baseball owners to invest in the future by trying to hook kids, even if they lost a little of their profit over the short run.  Again, how familiar does this sound?  On a relative scale, of course, comics would love to have the “problems” that baseball does, but baseball is losing ground continually to football and even basketball.  Comics are losing ground to any number of entertainment options, the most closely related being video games.  And it appears that the only way to recover is to sacrifice some of today’s profits for tomorrow’s investments.  How much do you want to bet DC and Marvel won’t do that?

The problem, of course, is us.  You and me.  The hardcore fans.  DC and Marvel have decided to pander to us almost exclusively, which is silly.  If you’re a hardcore fan of anything, you’ll deal with anything that shakes you and move on.  To return to sports, NASCAR fans went a bit ballistic when their sport moved into the mainstream and stopped supporting fine Southern things like racism, as they actively sought black fans.  NASCAR hasn’t been terribly successful at luring a black audience, but they’ve tried.  As the sport has gone mainstream and lost the rough-and-tumble ambience it once had, the hardcore fans have dealt with it and stayed.  Plus, NASCAR gained a whole new audience and is now, to my eternal shame as an American (it’s freakin’ cars going around in a circle!!!!), more popular than baseball.  You can argue the merits of baseball versus driving a car around in a circle and occasionally jumping out and throwing your helmet at someone, but the fact is that NASCAR did a very good job of marketing and distribution.  We hardcore comics fans will read comics, pretty much no matter what.  I’m not saying DC and Marvel shouldn’t throw us a bone every once in a while – that’s what Infinite Crisis was all about – but when their entire product is geared toward us, that’s just stupid.  DC and Marvel have to readjust their business plan, and possibly piss some of us off, in order to bring in more fans.  But they might lose money in the short term.  I still have no idea how these two companies, who make money by the boatload in movies and merchandising, can’t put some effort into selling their product more efficiently.  I’m not talking about not being able to pay Stuart Immonen his asking price and killing a book like Nextwave.  I like Nextwave, but I’ll get over its demise.  I’m talking about getting their books into the hands of kids.  Today at my daughter’s school a couple of boys were in the playground, and one of them said something about “being Wolverine” and then he lunged, claws extended (presumably) at the other boy.  Kids know the DC and Marvel icons.  I should have asked the kid if he’d ever read a comic book with Wolverine in it.  My guess would be no.

Ultimately, baseball and comics have absolutely no right to exist.  They are simply entertainment options, and live or die on the whims of the consumer.  I think NASCAR and X-Treem sports are moronic, but they are getting the ratings these days, so television pays more attention to them.  I think video games are awful, but they are more popular with kids, so Wal-Mart sells them even if you get to eviscerate nuns while planning a terrorist attack on the White House.  Many comics are tame compared to video games, but you can’t get them in supermarkets or convenience stores.  DC and Marvel should be getting these books into libraries at no cost to the library.  Do they do anything like that, librarians out there?  They should be sponsoring reading programs with comics.  Joey Q should go on more television shows like The Colbert Report and not only plug his stupid Civil War, but where to get comics.  Sacrifice some profit now for future profit.  There is no reason why comics have to be around in 20 years.  It’s not in the Constitution!

Sorry for the rant.  I just found it interesting that sports people were saying the same exact things about “America’s pastime” that many people have been saying about comics for years.  It’s not like either of them is working in a vacuum.  Baseball can emulate other sports; DC and Marvel can look to manga or other successful business models.  I don’t read manga, but I admit that they know how to market and distribute (which is probably as important as marketing) their product.  It’s troubling yet fascinating that the Big Two don’t seem to care about the future.  Joey Q and Dan DiDio can join Bug Selig and the baseball owners on the deck of the Titanic and listen to the band play.  I’m sure nothing more important was going on right then!

Let me have it, people – you know I love hearing how off-base I am!     

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