One of the salient issues with the business of baseball is that the sport’s approach to marketing its game largely can be summarized by a line from a motion picture released nearly three decades ago:
“People will come, Ray.”
That’s it. When those words are spoken by the golden voice of James Earl Jones, they certainly resonate. But it’s no way to sell a sport. Baseball has relied upon its supposedly unassailable appeal for decades and finding new ways to monetize that obsession has helped keep the sport lucrative for both players and owners. That appeal has diminished, though, in a way no other sport is facing.
And the problems that created this issue have been evident for more than a month, since baseball owners leaked they were proposing to the players association a 50-50 revenue split for the pandemic-damaged 2020 season and the players reacted as if they’d been offered $7.25 an hour. They’ve sniped back-and-forth through the media multiple times per week since, and this week they demonstrated they can’t even agree upon what they’ve agreed upon.
You think people aren't tired of this? You think people weren’t appalled when Tampa pitcher Blake Snell declared, “I gotta get my money. I’m not playing unless I get mine, OK”? You think baseball wouldn’t benefit from legitimate cooperation between the players association and the ownership group? You think those fans who threatened never to return if this persists, and especially if no 2020 season occurs, won’t follow through on their threat?
Tim Garrow grew up in Pittsburgh, has been around long enough to have seen his first game at Forbes Field. He has fond memories of the Pirates' 1971 and 1979 World Series titles. He told SN via Twitter he gave up when the economics of the game forced the Bucs to trade Andrew McCutchen. He says he has "not missed baseball at all." That's not a single voice; it's one voice representative of many.
Look around. It’s not as crowded at the ballpark as it used to be.
“Even with what’s gone on, it’s hard to really, truly damage this game,” former Major League Baseball commissioner Fay Vincent said in an interview with Bob Klapisch of NJ.com. “It always comes roaring back, especially if it’s been taken away for a long period of time. Fans end up missing it.”
Vincent, like many involved in the sport, ignores that fewer people miss it than once did. Baseball attendance has dropped 13.8 percent since its 2007 all-time high. Television ratings for the World Series have fallen 41 percent in 20 years. There is no other major American men’s professional sports league experiencing such a decline.
One sport out of the five major male leagues is declining in attendance and interest. One sport has no salary cap. Yep, it's the same sport: baseball. Market size is everything in the game now, and it plays out year after year. https://t.co/DHtBau7kdg
— Michael DeCourcy (@tsnmike) June 18, 2020
There is a sense of collaboration in each of the other four major sports leagues. That does not mean it is not frequently adversarial. Just as there are disputes in marriages and in “mom and pop” retail shops, the team owners and players associations in the NBA, NHL, NFL and MLS fight frequently. Ultimately, though, healthy partnerships reach some sort of compromise that benefits both parties and the enterprise.
The NHL is a league with a far smaller reach than baseball, and for that reason its revenues aren’t close to MLB’s. But the money and the audience for hockey continue to grow. The salary cap for an NHL team has grown by 108 percent over the past 14 years, since the league reached an agreement to establish a cap and a floor for player salaries.
Even though there is less money flowing through hockey, there are three baseball teams whose payrolls fall below the NHL floor: the Pirates, Marlins and Orioles. That’s how much the cap has worked to improve hockey’s business generally and the players’ lot particularly. That’s how broken the MLB system is right now.
MLB teams aren’t forced to attempt to be competitive in the way a salary floor would, and many don’t believe they have the sort of fair shot at winning that a salary cap would enforce. The massive revenue imbalance from team to team caused primarily by local television rights has teams convinced not to try. Hey, I don’t climb mountains because I know I can’t. If someone wanted to pay me not to climb mountains, though, I’d certainly take the check.
Those who wish to pretend the economics of the game aren’t the primary issue with baseball’s decline in popularity frequently will place the blame on young people with allegedly shorter attention spans who have not embraced the game as their parents or grandparents (or great-grandparents) once did. College football never has been more popular, though, and its games regularly last 3.5 hours.
No, baseball’s biggest problem is that its principals don’t understand the market. They act as though their fans are addicted.
“Remember one thing,” Vincent told Klapisch. “People do love baseball.”
Surely they do, but if baseball were a sport one could not quit, there would be more fans at games and watching on television. If MLB wishes to dismiss the threats from fans to exit for good if there is no clear solution to the 2020 season, or no solution soon, it does so at its own peril.
Then again, that’s just another day at the office for the people running this game.