Spin Aside, Baseball’s Current Woes Fall Squarely on the Owners
In locking out the players, Major League Baseball’s owners are failing in their chief duty: Keeping the game popular and relevant.
Major League Baseball’s cabal of owners seems to be laboring under the delusion that they, in a word, matter.
I assure you: They do not. Or, at the very least, they are ignoring all of the parts of their job that could matter.
The brood of preposterously fortunate bigwigs who metaphorically sign the checks have a long, storied history of being precisely wrong about most things. When baseball has succeeded, it has done so in spite of the moneyed class that turns America’s former pastime into an investment opportunity. So too, when baseball is culturally relevant — and I assure younger readers that it once was, despite all current evidence to the contrary — it is because of the on-field heroics and off-field charisma of the players.
The players, by the way, are those muscular guys the owners are currently complaining about. You know them; they’re the ones actually playing baseball, a feat they could easily complete even if all of the owners were to get stuck in a particularly large elevator.
The root cause of the current labor stoppage, which threatens to wipe out some or all of the 2022 MLB season, involves how much the players should be paid, and when. Due to an increasingly absurd system of compensation, many players work for a too-low league minimum (or bizarrely calculated figures just above it), while others play the prime of their careers in anticipation of free-agent paydays the owners are desperate to delay and manipulate.
The very best players do receive eye-poppingly large contracts. The vast majority, though, never sniff that sort of handsome compensation — while, in the minor leagues, players sleep four or five to a room and analyze the McDonald’s menu for saving opportunities.
This comes at a time of unprecedented revenues for team owners. Before pandemic woes, Major League Baseball posted record revenues of $10.9 billion; that figure marks an inflation-adjusted increase of 386% over the past three decades.
So you’d think there would be some money to spread around.
More concerningly, revenue is about the only thing about baseball that’s looking up. Television ratings are decreasing — over the past two decades, the World Series has lost about half of its viewers — while the average age of viewers is going up, and just 7% of MLB viewers are under the age of 18. Even before the pandemic, league-wide attendance was dropping.
How do owners respond to fewer people showing up at the games? Do they reduce prices to get more people in the gate and create new fans? No, of course not. They try to get as much money as possible out of the people who do show up.
Therein lies the ultimate failing of the owners: They believe their job is to increase profits, when the only possible practical use of their position should be to increase fans. There are always drop-in-the-ocean tweaks and improvements bandied about to attempt to make the game more enjoyable for the viewer; indeed, some of those changes are also on the table during the current negotiations.
While speeding up play and expanding the playoffs could help, though, what the game really needs is cheaper tickets, easier access to watching games — most 10-year-olds with an interest in baseball don’t quite have the money for their own MLB.tv subscription, ya know — and (this is key) actually playing the games instead of canceling them.
The owners seem to think that they can convince the public that the loss of games this year is, somehow, the players’ fault. This is a delusion under the best of circumstances. (We know that around here; we don’t blame subpar Pirates for taking the field, we blame Bob Nutting for not hiring better players.) Since it’s plain as day that this stoppage is a result of pure, old-fashioned ownership greed, however, no fan is likely to mistake the problem as one that grew out of the clubhouse.
The owners need to show up to the next round of meetings and give the players more or less whatever they want. The loss of more games will reflect poorly on the league — and further hasten the decline of interest in baseball.
Most people, actually, won’t give much thought to whose fault this mess is. They’ll just continue watching the NFL and NBA. The owners would do well to understand that reality.