May 26, 2020
This could be a pivotal week in major league baseball’s history.
The rubber will hit the road as talks to salvage the 2020 season from the grip of the COVID-19 pandemic intensify.
Obviously, other major sports besides baseball are in similar situations, but the surrounding contexts are different and the stakes might not be quite as high.
Basketball is considering a Walt Disney World-based plan to play a limited number of regular season games and a playoff tournament. Hockey is considering holding an expanded 24-team playoff tournament at multiple sites. Both are looking at midsummer returns, though many of the details still need to be worked out.
It is notable that the owners and players in both of those sports are keeping fairly low profiles, knowing that a public airing of grievances is counterproductive.
Unfortunately, baseball owners and players have not gotten that memo.
On one hand, you have ownership representatives leaking to friendly reporters that they have a “smoking gun” email that proves the players knew full well that the prorated salaries previously agreed to were based upon fans being in the stands. Now, with the prospect of empty stadiums at the beginning of the season, at the very least, the owners expect further financial concessions from the players.
On the other side, you have the Rays’ Blake Snell’s public comments, including the famed, “I gotta get my money. I’m not playing unless I get mine. OK?” line. If you look at the full body, including context, of Snell’s words, there’s a lot of truth in there. But the tone, and the sound bite, are quite unproductive.
It’s quite possible that similar conversations are going on in other sports, but they haven’t overtaken the headlines. I would argue that relatively weak leadership on the part of both sides has allowed both MLB ownership and the players’ union to be cast in a negative light.
The public wants its major sports leagues back, but not at all costs. If owners and players can’t find a pathway to safely playing their games, and they are transparent about their efforts, fans will understand. If it becomes a public hissing match between billionaires and millionaires, clumsily trying not to strangle the golden goose, while doing just that, the fans could well abandon them.
Consider the following stakeholders that major league baseball has seemingly forgotten in recent months:
- Minor league baseball teams/fans – there was a movement in place to cut 40 clubs before the pandemic, and now the shortening of the MLB draft to five rounds this June has made it a fait accompli. Oh, and teams have begun to release scads of minor league players, who were poorly compensated to begin with, and who will now have to search for health insurance as well.
- College baseball teams – the draft is just one component here. Colleges have been hurt financially by the pandemic, and multiple Division I schools have dropped baseball as a result. The fear is that many, many more could follow suit.
Baseball may have set an all-time industry record in revenues in 2019, but its long-term trend is muddled. Attendance has plateaued and begun to turn down, and at the youth level, it has become a game for the well-off, who can afford personalized training and elite travel team programs. Go ahead and ask 50 random kids their favorite sport, and be prepared for baseball to finish 4th or so.
Within a week, we should have a really good idea how major league baseball’s summer is going to play out. From best to worst-case scenario, here are the options (the actual details may vary somewhat):
1 – The owners and players keep the discord to a minimum, and exchange mutually beneficial ideas that result in an 82-game season beginning around July 4, with expanded playoffs involving 14 teams lasting until around November 1. Teams train for most of June. The whole thing comes off without a hitch, and potential labor strife is put off for a couple of years. For what it’s worth, I think this is the most likely option, though less than a 50/50 proposition.
2 – The two sides agree on the financial parameters for a 2020 season, but cannot find a way forward that sufficiently satisfies the health concerns facing game participants. Why would this be the second “best” outcome? For one, because the diversion of too many COVID-19 tests toward baseball personnel and away from the general public would be a bad thing.
3 – The airing of grievances continues, and results in a public billionaires vs. millionaires public relations disaster, and ultimately, no season. Then in 2021, with the revenue pie much smaller, the two parties reconvene.
4 – #1, except the system breaks down after the games begin to be played. COVID-19 cases hit the player population fairly hard, and a team or teams shut down seasonal operations. Then in 2021, with the revenue pie much smaller, the two parties reconvene.
As you can see, an awful lot is at stake here. Scenarios #3 and #4 would be catastrophic to major league baseball. As crazy as it sounds, though, I think fans would be more forgiving of #4 – if all parties were transparent, and knew and assessed the risks, but it ultimately didn’t work out, the fans would come back over time.
But if the owners and players simply bickered, and couldn’t find common ground upon which to advance the sport for purely financial reasons, the fans could well move on for good. The stakes couldn’t be higher – let’s see how the parties act this week.