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Baseball is swinging for the financial fences

As Major League Baseball's Rob Manfred, now chief operating officer, succeeds retiring Commissioner Bud Selig on Sunday, MLB is heading into a new season in its best financial shape in years. In fact, some sports economists argue the sport is gaining ground financially on the National Football Leauge, the most lucrative and popular professional sport.

Revenue from MLB's 32 teams hit a record $9 billion in 2014, a 12.5 percent increase from 2013, thanks to increases in broadcast fees and gate receipts along with gains from the league's digital media business, Major League Baseball Advanced Media (BAM).

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The service lets fans stream out-of-market games over their devices. Some experts consider BAM, which also has nonbaseball customers, to be among the most effective digital media business models and is MLB's fastest growing business. Indeed, MLB executives are optimistic about the league's growth prospects, although they declined to provide specifics.

"We believe we have the most valuable assets of any live sport, and we are looking to grow our top line significantly," MLB senior executive Bob Bowman recently told Sports Business Journal.

University of Michigan sports economist Rodney Fort argued that baseball will catch the NFL in the next two to three seasons because of BAM and the growth of regional sports networks. "They have been closing in on football for the past five or six years," Fort told CBS MoneyWatch. "Baseball is definitely going to catch football in the next few years."

Other sports economists aren't so sure. The NFL generates about $10 billion in revenue now and may hit $25 billion by 2027. And pro football's dominance of TV ratings isn't in danger from baseball or any other sport.

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"Baseball's revenue growth has been impressive, and it has more upside potential for growth in the coming years than football," said Andrew Zimblast, a professor at Smith College who focuses on sports economics. "I feel less confident, however, that it will overtake football in total revenue within the next three years."

Baseball earns about as much as the NFL from merchandise sales and digital revenue, according to Temple University's Michael Leeds. It also has the advantage over football in terms of ticket sales, thanks to the length of its 162-game season versus football's 16 games. But what sets the two sports apart is TV. The NFL routinely tops the ratings and outdraws baseball and other professional and college sports.

Also, as Vanderbilt University's John Vrooman noted in an email to CBS MoneyWatch, the NFL -- which will play the Super Bowl on Feb. 1 -- is worth $50 billion collectively, double baseball's $25 billion.

"The NFL is economically bulletproof, and $25 billion in revenues is within reach in a dozen or so seasons (if they don't implode from self-destructive internal governance)," Vrooman wrote. "More importantly, NFL revenue and player costs are both almost certain (because of a hard cap and extensive revenue sharing) with a value revenue multiple of 4.8, whereas MLB is still a risky business with a multiple of 3.5."

Still, when it comes to broadcasting revenue, baseball is no slouch. MLB's national broadcast deals are worth more than $12 billion. It will continue to benefit from the ever-increasing demand for sports content from media companies, with sports one of the few remaining genres of programming that people watch live.

"I keep thinking that it's going to have to slow down, but I keep getting proven wrong," said Victor Matheson, a professor at the College of the Holy Cross who specializes in sports economics.

Teams are also raking in the cash with local deals.

Take the New York Yankees. In 2012, News Corp., now 21st Century Fox (FOXA), agreed to buy a 49 percent stake in the team's YES Network for about $3 billion. In turn, YES Network will get the rights to broadcast Yankee games through 2042. YES Network will wind up paying the Yankees $342 million per year for the broadcast rights.

Or the Los Angeles Dodgers, which inked a 25-year, $7 billion deal with Time Warner Cable (TWC) in 2013. And last year, the Philadelphia Phillies agreed to a $2.5 billion deal with Comcast (CMCSA) SportsNet.

Of course, the money hasn't always been well spent. The Yankees failed to make the playoffs in Derek Jeter's final season, while the Phillies had a losing record. And although the Dodgers won their second straight divisional championship, the St. Louis Cardinals eliminated them in the playoffs.

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