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How St. Louis Cardinals may have answer to MLB’s declining fan base

St. Louis Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina (4) hits a double against the San Francisco Giants during the second inning at Busch Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports
Credit: Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

Do the St. Louis Cardinals have an unwitting cure for some of the game’s worst ills?

If so, the answer might lie somewhere between Yadier Molina and Adam Wainwright.

And it might only be a small step.

Call it a 60-foot, 6-inch first step.

What the hell are we talking about?

It’s about continuity, the baseball economy and maybe even a little double-birds-on-a-bat directed toward the Cards’ big-market rivals in Chicago.

First some background:

During a lull at one of the quarterly owners’ meetings a little over a decade ago, a ranking executive in the commissioner’s office chatted with a curious Chicago baseball writer about theoretical impacts on the sport of skyrocketing national and regional broadcast rights.

Specifically, what happens when broadcast rights in the industry finally surpass attendance as the largest piece of the revenue pie for teams, as was already happening in many markets?

In other words, what happens when teams have less incentive to prioritize attracting fans to the ballpark for a game-a-day season when making decisions?

“That’s something we talk a lot about,” the executive said. “We can’t make it as a studio sport. We’re not built like the NFL.”

What’s next in MLB’s efforts to maintain interest in the game?

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Credit: Dale Young-USA TODAY Sports

In the years immediately following that conversation rights fees only continued to soar.

And the results were as ugly as they were obvious: 

  • Tanking became a way of life for franchises big and small whose smart-guy front offices determined that even a potentially good roster was not good enough if the projection models didn’t suggest a chance at a deep October run (twice in a decade if you happen to be the Cubs).
  • MLB attendance, perhaps not coincidentally, has decreased for eight consecutive seasons, even when excluding the 2020-21 seasons of COVID-19 restrictions — to the game’s lowest since 1997 (the last season before baseball’s most recent expansion).
  • Available franchises have become increasingly popular among buyers from financial industries (Cubs, Los Angeles Dodgers, New York Mets, Florida Marlins, etc.), capitalizing on the recent era of massive franchise-value growth and year-over-year profitability (helped by big-league luxury taxes and capped amateur-talent spending). And, again perhaps not coincidentally, teams have increasingly applied economic models to player evaluations, adhering to computer-generated values, often squeezing good 30-something players who aren’t superstars.

As reliever Brad Brach said when he got to spring training in 2019 after a perplexing free agency period when every offer was almost identical: “It’s just kind of weird that all the offers are the same and come around the same time,” he said, “and everybody tells you there’s an algorithm, but you figure teams [would] have different ones.”

So what happens next?

For one thing, MLB literally changed the rules of the game, effective this season, to help spur offense, pace of play and maybe more fan interest (including shift bans and larger bases).

And for what it’s worth, such efforts might start feeling more urgent with the future of broadcast rights clouded by cord-cutting and at least short-term uncertainty of the reported impending bankruptcy of the parent company of Bally Sports, the regional sports network for 14 MLB teams.

Did we mention the St. Louis Cardinals?

St. Louis Cardinals keep homegrown fan-favorites in the fold

St. Louis Cardinals starting pitcher Adam Wainwright (50) and catcher Yadier Molina (4) walk in from the bullpen before a game against the Milwaukee Brewers at Busch Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports
Credit: Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

During a discussion last season with Cards president John Mozeliak about why his team is willing to arguably overpay to keep fan-favorite All-Stars such as Molina and Wainwright through the twilights of their careers, while so many others — read: rival Cubs — seem quick to sweep out any such players who won’t take team-friendly deals or who otherwise drop in projected value.

“I do think we are an organization that might make a decision that others might not,” Mozeliak said. “Some teams are very disciplined to their algorithm of what someone should get paid or not. 

“For us sometimes we will put that aside for certain players.”

That sounds almost mundane in its simplicity and common sense. And it’s easy to overlook in a larger conversation.

But it rubs profoundly against the grain of the industry standard more accurately described by Brach.

The Cubs, for instance, have only one player left from their 2016 championship, with the latest All-Star out the door — Willson Contreras — signing a five-year deal with the Cardinals this winter. Two player they traded from that core (Javy Báez, Kris Bryant) got nine-figure free agent deals; two more they jettisoned in the same eight-month period (Kyle Schwarber, Anthony Rizzo) won playoff series last October.

The Red Sox finally forked over a market-value extension offer (10-year, $313.5 million) to keep a homegrown star (Rafael Devers) this winter after years of haggling for bargains and even lowballing such homegrown stars as Jon Lester, Mookie Betts and Xander Bogaerts — all of whom cashed in with megadeals in free agency soon after.

Related: Sportsnaut’s MLB power rankings heading into spring training

Generational continuity of St. Louis Cardinals, New York Yankees impact winning

St. Louis Cardinals first baseman Albert Pujols (5) runs the bases after hitting a solo home run for his 702nd career home run during the third inning against the Pittsburgh Pirates at Busch Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports
Credit: Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

The Cardinals aren’t necessarily better than anyone else. They were able to extend Albert Pujols on a seven-year, $100 million deal as he entered his arbitration years, but they wouldn’t go far enough to compete with the Angels’ $240 million for the back half of Pujols’ career (a final, farewell-tour season last year notwithstanding).

And Mozeliak’s algorithm-optional policy isn’t going to suddenly solve baseball’s worst scourge: tanking.

But if more teams paid more attention, if not a few more dollars, to the value their fans place on some of those homegrown favorites, maybe it begins to make the game more attractive again to those fans.

Molina headed a catching corps that was among the worst in baseball for offensive production by the time he finished his final season in 2022, for which he was paid $10 million at age 39. Wainwright signed a $17.5 million deal to stick around in 2023 at age 41 after a late-career surge last year.

As good as both of those players are, those are inflated prices, if you ask the algorithms.

But Cardinals fans who have been around long enough got a chance to see that battery make more starts together than any battery in major-league history. Not a bad return for the investment on a few tickets to the ballpark — especially when it comes with as many contending seasons as it did during their careers.

Mozeliak and Wainwright also will tell you that kind of generational continuity — going back decades with the Cardinals — also correlates to winning. The mega-market Yankees, who traditionally have used their resources to achieve a similar continuity, might tell you the same thing.

Maybe it’s no coincidence those two teams have more championships than anybody else.

“The winning traditions that we’ve had here, they’ve worked. Just plain and simple,” Wainwright said. “Over the years we’ve done things pretty much the same way since I got here, and it was done pretty much the same way before I got here, and hopefully when I leave it’ll be done pretty much the same way after I leave.”

Said Mozeliak, who also has traded for players such as MVP Paul Goldschmidt and extended them, as part of the formula: “The success of all of this is trying to keep a generation of players that our fans identify with, over and over and over.”

Not a bad way to sell tickets.

Gordon Wittenmyer covers Major League Baseball for Sportsnaut. You can follow him on Twitter at @GDubCub.

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