Maybe Baseball Is Back…

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 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:

  1. 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?
  2. 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………



6 thoughts on “Maybe Baseball Is Back…”

  1. I think that the two indicators you thought up for deciding how much damage has been done are interesting and fascinating, and a good, measurable sign of fan engagement. You should definitely remember to follow up on these, because I doubt anyone else will.

    One other metric that I think can also be an apt way of measuring engagement – beer sales across the stadiums. Beer is something that people consume more of when they come out to have a night of it all. They bring friends, and hang out before, and drink up until the 7th inning stretch. Less beer sold means not just fewer fans, but also less engaged fans as well. Averaging the quantity sold across the parks, as well as average consumption per game could be a fascinating metric as well!

    1. Matt:

      Data on beer sales might be available. Data on how many season-long fantasy leagues will not be readily available. Date on daily fantasy wagering might be available if the companies choose to report it out separately in their quarterly filings.

  2. Um, Curm.. 5 PM Tuesday deadline? Passed? Isn’t that yet a couple of hours off?

    Tanking… maybe rule how often you can draft high? like you can’t pick in the top 5 more than twice in any 5 year period, 3 times in 10 years. Still twice a random mix. No more than 3 times in the top 10 for 5 years, or 5 times in 10. Tanking for the #12 won’t help much. Probably a much bigger gap between #3 and #13 than between #13 and #23 – who is a playoff team…. Wait for the hue and cry when the Marlins, say, are 56-106, the Next Junior Griffey is on tap… and they have to wait until at least the 6th pick because they went #2 three years ago and #4 last year.

    The salary disparity, OK. Want a low salary team? We reduce revenue sharing. Someone would need the numbers to get something more exact, but lets throw rough numbers out. Lets say average team salary is $125M. We will allow some variance, let us start saying the penury tax starts at 80% of that, or $100M. The rays spent a little over $50M last year. They spent 50% of the bottom limit? They only get a 50% share of the revenue sharing. Don’t spend revenue, don’t generate revenue, don’t get to share revenue.

    1. Ed:

      Sorry about the deadline confusion. the error is mine.

      I like your idea of penalizing the under-spending teams – – so long as there is a much fairer formula for revenue sharing.

  3. The problem with baseball is too many strike outs, the designated hitter and the shift. The shift and designated hitter can be corrected by rules changes by eliminating both. The shift reminds me of softball we played when I was a kid and had a roving fielder. It’s silly watching a hitter being thrown out at first base from a short right fielder, who should be playing third base. Those “stolen” base hits would make for a more exciting game by having more men on base and creating more offensive strategy: bunt, steal or hit and run which all have been removed from the game. No, what we get instead is a strike out or home run attitude. Usually with no one on base. With increased number of runners on base, the batter would be more likely to put the ball in play rather than swing for the fences. This would indirectly cut down on the number of strike outs and me having to watch the batter give a dirty look at the pitcher while he is walking back to the dug out like the pitcher just killed the batters first born. To me, it is exciting seeing the base runners rounding the bases while the ball is in play and the defense chasing down a ball to the outfield with possibility of a play at the plate.
    There are to few instances in the game today. The players like Richie Ashburn, Pete Rose, Tony Gwynn and others who weren’t home run hitters but put the ball in play are missed from today’s game. And, I dare say added to the love of the game. Each of those players struck out very little and always gave the pitcher a battle at each at bat. That alone was worth the price of admission.
    Baseball has lost its way with far too much analytics. Every friggen manager has an Excel spread sheet at his disposal to peruse before he makes a decision. That excess alone is killing the game. Relief pitchers come and go as frequently as birds do who found a bird feeder in your back yard.
    I want to continue to like the game, but it is getting more difficult. I used to go to the stadium 3 to 4 times a year. Now, I may go only once a year. Analytics has removed the excitement from the game (Not a Gabe Kapler fan). Too me he was the 2nd coming of Gene Mauch.
    But hey, don’t get me wrong, I love baseball.

    1. Willie Jones:

      Your assessment of the situation that devolves into “homerun or strikeout mentality” for the batter at the plate is a valid one. I guess the last hitter like Ashburn, Rose or Gwynn that I can recall was Ichiro and he is now “in the past” waiting for his call to Cooperstown.

      It is possible to be a power hitter AND to minimize strikeouts. Joe DiMaggio played 13 seasons in MLB and struck out a total of 369 times. He hit for power and averaged a meager 23 strikeouts per season. Plenty of today’s players average 23 strikeouts per month.

      Like you, I believe that analytics is way overused in baseball to the detriment of the game. For the moment,however, the nerds are in control…

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