Let's Debate the Argument that the Astros Have Killed Baseball in Houston
Former Astros beat writer Steve Campbell let loose with a series of tweets on Friday morning regarding the Astros that should be shared with a larger audience, and which should be addressed off-Twitter. The basic point of the tweets was that the Astros are killing baseball in Houston, noting that the most positive PR moment for the team over the past half decade has been the new uniforms, and that depending on a winning franchise to restore fan interest makes for a lousy business model.
The Astros have been nothing but a bad team making bad PR moves, compounded with the CSN Houston debacle, that has made the team "irrelevant to people's lives." Campbell further compares the Astros to the newspaper industry, stating that "it is hard to turn the tide once you've turned off people because you put out a deteriorating product AND went into cost-contain (READ: do things on the cheap mode). It makes people angry, and rightfully so."
It's not a given he tweets that the Astros will actually become a winning team, and that if "the underlying premise is that you're going to have to be a championship team for people to care, that's a pretty lousy model." If Houston were still a baseball city, he concludes, people would care no matter what, but it appears that there's just no fan interest.
Campbell does make some valid points. Hardcore baseball fans are fascinated by the Astros experiment of blowing everything up in a try for a total rebuild from the bottom of the farm system to the very top at the very same time, but that doesn't apply to average fans who want to spend their money on a decent product. The team has instead implemented a dynamic pricing model that forces people to pay more money for major teams, and next year season ticket prices are increasing. The team not being on television hinders the ability of casual fans to become familiar with the young kids on the team, and the move to 790 AM made it more difficult for fans to hear the games on the radio. Throw in the Brady Aiken issues, the childish manager, and the constant trades, and it's easy to see just why fans have lost interest in the Astros, and in baseball. But here's the important thing Campbell missed, and something that I've discussed before. Houston is a city of frontrunners. It's no better than Dallas, Atlanta, Miami, Tampa Bay, Phoenix, or Los Angeles. Fans show up for winning teams because it's the cool thing to do, but as soon as the team starts to lose and starts to lose its cool factor, the fans disappear. Hell, the Rockets have trouble packing Toyota Center (or getting the fans away from the bars and into the seats before halftime) even though it's once again a contender. And while there's fan interest in the Texans, those stands can be awful empty when the team's losing.
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The Astros have seemingly made an effort to alienate all but the most hardcore of baseball fans. But if the team ever returns to television, interest should start return because then people will be able to start learning the players, especially those fans who have been priced out of the market. And more importantly, once the team starts to win, if the team ever starts to win, the Astros situation will be improved because the corporations will once again start purchasing large blocks of tickets and giving away those seats to employees and clients, once again filling up the ballpark with fair-weather fans more concerned with being seeing by the right people than with seeing the Astros actually win baseball games.
Sure, the winning team model doesn't always work, witness the Tampa Bay Rays continued failure to get fans into their stadium, and the continued lackluster support received by the Atlanta Braves. But Houston's always been big on the front-running, coolness aspect support of fandom. So maybe there is something to the Astros build-a-winner-and-they'll-come model. So fan interest in baseball in Houston might be a bit under-the-weather, but it's not dead yet. However, if the Astros don't soon start fielding a competitive team capable of winning 80-plus games, it might then soon become the time that the condition of the Astros and fan interest in Houston is critical condition, in intensive care, with a priest hovering over the bed and giving the last rites.
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