Today is Presidents Day. Great Presidents exhibit leadership in times of difficulty; not-so-great Presidents fail to do so. Not to worry, I have no intention of turning today’s rant into a political jeremiad; I mention this point because in the narrow world of sports, we are seeing the continuation of a lack of leadership in one of our major sports. Naturally, I am referring to Major League Baseball.
The owners declared a lockout back in early December. Pitchers and catchers were supposed to report to Spring Training a week ago; Spring Training games were supposed to begin a couple of days from now. The regular season is scheduled to start at the end of March.
So, what happened…?
- Between the beginning of December and last weekend, the two sides negotiating the new Collective Bargaining Agreement only managed to find time on their busy schedules to meet a handful of times.
- Pitchers and catchers could not report to Spring Training camps that were locked out.
- The first week or so of Spring Training games have already been canceled.
- Supposedly, if there is no agreement which will allow Spring Training to begin by February 28th, the regular season will not start on time.
Most of the national media have chosen to blame Commissioner Rob Manfred for this debacle. Make no mistake, Manfred deserves a huge helping of opprobrium today and that helping should be slathered in a gravy derived from mule snot. At the same time, let us not forget to serve a similar helping of that concoction to Tony Clark as the head of the Players’ Association. In order to have meaningful negotiating sessions, it takes all parties to the dispute to come together and at least try to come to a resolution of the problems. Tony Clark has not exactly been pushing for the sides to burn the midnight oil to get to a degree. Recall that – according to reports – when Manfred and the owners proposed to have a Federal mediator brought in to try to assist in the negotiations, it was Clark and the union that would not agree.
I said above that this situation represents the continuation of a lack of leadership in baseball. Here’s why… Baseball had significant “labor unrest” from the 1970s through 1994 when a mid-season strike by the players caused the cancellation of the end of the regular season and the World Series. Then there was a period of calm on the management/labor front for about 25 years until 2020 – The Year of COVID-19. How or why that viral species managed to resuscitate the old labor/management anger in baseball is a mystery to me, but it did.
Take yourself back to the earliest days of the pandemic; we had lockdowns because there were no vaccines or effective medicines available. We were not even sure about the transmission modes for the virus; handwashing became for a while the national pastime. Just about every sport was on hiatus – – but by summertime it seemed that baseball could begin a “return to normalcy” with games played in front of empty grandstands. I assert that would have been a huge win for baseball itself had both the owners and players chosen to avail themselves of that opportunity; both sides found a way to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.
The owners cried poor; without fans in the stands, they would be paying players based on an economic model that assumed the live gate revenue stream would be intact. The players pointed to their signed contracts and demanded nothing less than a full pro-rata share of that contract for games played in the regular season. And with that divide, the MLB season in 2020 was a meager 60 games.
Think back on another point in the early summer of 2020. With virtually all US sports in mothballs, the TV networks were scrambling to fill air time. They were showing Korean League baseball on a routine basis because if they did not do that, they would be rummaging around in their archives to show reruns of My Mother the Car. [Aside: If you do not recognize how desperate the TV execs would have to have been to do that, Google is your friend.] I would not be the least bit surprised to learn that ESPN was deep into negotiations to acquire the rights to Saudi Arabian camel racing simply as a way to put live sports on the air.
Baseball had the opportunity to seize the day and to become the first sport to get back on the air and they found a way not to allow that to happen. And that was a significant mistake on the part of both sides. Baseball as a sport has seen its TV audiences shrink; there are myriad hypotheses as to the causes there but one of the causes is that the baseball fanbase is losing older folks and not replacing them with younger folks. Many people attribute that aging of the fanbase to a lack of interest in baseball by young sports fans.
If major league baseball were to have been the only live major US sport on TV for the months of June, July and August of 2020, there was an opportunity to engage and attract younger audiences who might have grown tired of watching college basketball reruns from 1986. That younger audience did not get that opportunity; the delayed “Opening Day” in 2020 was on July 23rd when the NFL Training Camps were already in progress.
The owners would not take short-term losses in exchange for the opportunity to attract new fans who could add to live gate revenues and TV audiences down the road. Players would not shave even a farthing off of their pro-rata contract demands. And that set the stage…
Now,, the two sides cannot agree on how many teams will make the playoffs in baseball. They cannot agree on revenue sharing among the major league teams. They cannot agree to have a mediator try to get them to a resolution of the situation. There is a huge failure of leadership on both sides of the table and fans should not take sides in the matter. For anyone who thinks that one of the sides is “less culpable” then the other – – thereby making it one’s favorite in the situation – – let me suggest that all one does there is to identify the tallest of the Seven Dwarfs.
Major League Baseball needs positive and effect leadership on this President’s Day; it has seen none of that from the combatants in the Collective Bargaining Agreement negotiations. In fact, it seems that that two sides have fallen into the habit of opposing any and all things favored by the other side simply out of habit. That leads me to conclude with this observation about “habit” from author Marcel Proust:
“The fixity of a habit is generally in direct proportion to its absurdity.”
But don’t get me wrong, I love sports………