The headlines on sports websites this morning proclaim that MLB is going to impose a schedule for its 2020 season even in the absence of an agreement with the MLBPA. If you are a diehard baseball fan – – or if you are simply tired of hearing about how these two entities cannot agree with each other on anything – – you may take those headlines as unadulterated good news. I am indeed tired of hearing about the intransigence of both sides here, but I cannot make myself stand up and cheer at this outcome.
Let me give you two sentences from one report at CBSSports.com this morning:
“Manfred is expected to schedule a 60-game season provided the two sides agree on health and safety protocols, and the players are able to report to spring training by July 1. MLB asked the MLBPA to agree to both conditions by 5 p.m. ET on Tuesday.”
There are two live hand grenades in those two sentences:
- “Provided the two sides agree to health and safety protocols” flies in the face of the reality that the two sides have been unable to agree on anything else.
- “…asked the MLBPA to agree to both conditions by 5 p.m. on Tuesday,” is a deadline already passed without agreement.
Because the 2020 baseball season will forever be viewed as a bastard stepchild, no one really “won the negotiations”. In a small sense, the owners “won” the bit about season length; they will lose money without fans in the stands, so they wanted as few games as possible. The original owners’ proposal was for 48 games; the players countered with 114 games. Purely coincidentally of course, those two proposals just happen to add up to 162 games which is a normal baseball season. The stage was set for a compromise of 81 games if the two sides could shoe-horn that number into a calendar window. But no … Manfred is expected to set us a 60-game schedule. Fewer games = smaller losses for the owners.
Balance that small “win” for the owners against the fact that they will not get expanded playoffs this Fall meaning less revenue from media rights sales. Fewer playoff games = smaller revenues for the teams.
The MLBPA took a loss – potentially a big one – keeping expanded playoffs from happening. The owners were offering a 50/50 split of those playoff revenues and that sort of split is far in excess of what MLB currently spends on player salaries. With upcoming negotiations needed for a new CBA, that would have been a nice bargaining chip for the union to have had on its side of the table. But no…
Speaking of those upcoming negotiations for a new CBA, watch for this dynamic to play itself out over the winter – – with or without a second wave of COVID-19:
- Claiming rightly that they lost money in 2020, owners will be very parsimonious with free agent offerings.
- Someone somewhere – – I would not be surprised if Scott Boras were involved – – will mention “collusion”.
- That will get the serious negotiations off on the right foot – – NOT!
Rather than drill down into the fine grain here to anoint a “winner” in this mess, let me focus on a more landscape sort of view. MLB attendance has been down for the past several years; in 2019, MLB games drew about 1 million fewer fans than they did the year before. MLB is not about to go bankrupt, but dwindling attendance is never a good sign. I believe that part of the problem here is that the game now has a systemic flaw that it did not have in the past.
- The average game takes about 3 hours and 5 minutes. Every attempt to cut that down significantly has either been rejected by either owners or players and/or has been tried to no avail.
- Homeruns and strikeouts are way up. In both cases, the plate appearance that produces either outcome does not put the ball in play meaningfully.
- There is far too much “dawdling”. There is no sporting term that should have to be applied to the stalling tactics on display far too often.
- “Tanking” has become acceptable baseball. There have always been teams that spent less than other teams on players and lost games because of that. Today, teams intentionally shortchange salaries to lose on purpose over several years’ time to harvest top draft picks.
Those four “negative elements” of MLB’s product today set in juxtaposition with the reality that ticket prices are high and parking/concession prices are highway robbery should explain at least a part of MLB’s attendance declines over the past several seasons. On top of that, the omens for MLB attendance are not great:
- In 1995 – after the truncated 1994 season that had no World Series – attendance dropped more than 20%. Yes, one can attribute the 2020 “short season” to COVID-19, but no one will think of this year as a time when labor and management worked together to make things as good as they could be under the circumstances. Fans will stay home next year even when the stadia are open for business.
- The US economy has taken a significant hit in 2020. The last time something of similar magnitude happened was the 2008 financial crises and baseball attendance dropped in the three years following that event.
- Go all the way back to the Depression in the 1930s when attendance numbers were much smaller than today to begin with and you will see attendance decline as much as 35% year over year.
Here are my two indicators for just how badly the owners and the union have damaged baseball as an economic entity:
- What is the relative handle for Daily Fantasy Baseball at those gambling sites in the truncated 2020 season and then in the first several months of whatever the 2021 season turns out to be?
- How many season-long fantasy baseball leagues will be resurrected in 2021 as compared to 2019?
Instead of trying to figure out who won this labor management confrontation and who lost it, consider that the winner may have scored a Pyrrhic victory and that the game of baseball in the US is the unintended victim of the squabbling.
Finally, some cold-hearted logic from Greg Cote of the Miami Herald:
“Tony Hawk was in the news, but I didn’t care enough to Google why. Something about a 52-year-old man on a skateboard makes me sad.”
But don’t get me wrong, I love sports………