If MLB loses the 2020 season, a salary cap should be part of its vision for the future

Sporting News

If you were paying attention on Dec. 10, 1988, if you were around to pay attention, you recognized the event that commenced baseball’s long, gradual decline to its current calamity. On that day, the New York Yankees announced they were selling the rights to broadcast their games on local television for $500 million over 12 years.

It was at that moment — or, to be more accurate, when the deal went into effect in 1991 — baseball became the sport in which greatness was available for a price. Success no longer was so much about who had the best scouts, the best developmental system and the best manager to handle all the best players who grew through the system. It became more about which teams made beaucoup bucks from their local TV deals.

In no other major American team sport is success tied so inextricably to market size. To put it in language any fan can understand: There are no Green Bay Packers in Major League Baseball. There are no New Orleans Saints. There are no Kansas City Chiefs. And there never will be.

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Unless — hold on for a second, because saying this out loud has been known to send certain segments of the baseball community into apoplexy — the team owners and players association agree on revenue sharing and a salary cap.

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Big-league baseball is the only one of the five male major leagues that operates without a cap and with big-market teams blessed with bountiful local TV deals. It is the only one that has evinced no sense of partnership among the players and owners both within the confines of the COVID-19 pandemic and through broader recent history.

They are not "in this together," working to grow their game. They are on opposite sides of a chasm filled with mistrust, rancor and greed. They are so focused on counting the money they all make (for now) they have lost sight of the health of the enterprise that generates that wealth. That is why baseball is the one sport in which the past six weeks have been spent not on safely resuming competition and presenting a 2020 season for those who still care but, instead, with acrimony and a dearth of solutions.

Perhaps if baseball does manage to wreck this entire season it can at least use the opportunity to address its future by evening out the competitive advantages enjoyed by big-market teams with true financial distribution among its teams and a bargaining agreement that establishes a salary floor (the Orioles were planning to pay only $65 million in 2020, while the Yankees paid more $250 million) and a ceiling, with the budget for this tied to a particular percentage of revenue. Like the NFL, NHL and MLS.

It is no coincidence MLB is the one league among those whose profile is declining. This is not just a sports-talk radio perception. This is reality. While other leagues were reaching all-time highs, the NBA at 21.49 million, the NHL at 22.18 million and Major League soccer at 8.6 million fans in attendance in 2018-19, MLB attendance plunged 13.8 percent from its 2007 high.

When the 1980s dawned, the World Series was drawing more than 40 million viewers on average. That dwindled to audiences in the 30 million neighborhood through the 1990s, but by this past decade the Series audience only surpassed 20 million once, when the Chicago Cubs won for the first time in more than a century. From 1980 to 2019, the average audience for the Fall Classic plunged by 67 percent. During that same period, the Super Bowl audience increased by 47 percent.

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cubs-032520-getty-ftr

Baseball’s advocates will defend the game against any onslaught of facts. They will point to increased revenues and payrolls and team values. If money is the game, baseball is winning, because those baseball fans who remain, mostly in the biggest cities, are nothing if not loyal and have made MLB Advanced Media a raging success.

But there also was a time in the 1990s when newspapers still were so robust they routinely recorded profit margins above 20 percent; the Buffalo News recorded a margin of 34 percent one year. More than 2,000 newspapers have disappeared since 2004. That’s how things can change for an industry that miscalculates its appeal and fails to innovate to broaden its audience.

Of course, baseball is in no danger of shedding teams or closing its doors. It is seeing its audience become both smaller and older, though, and neither is healthy for the future of a business.

MORE: Manfred flip-flops on chances for MLB season in 2020

A lot of criticism of the sport focuses on length of games and other cosmetic issues. Young people are said to find its frequent pauses to be tedious. Here’s the catch, though: When a baseball game is consequential, its pace can amplify the tension to magnificently excruciating levels.

That is baseball’s enduring appeal, but it is missing for too large a portion of the audience. It has become not much more than a nice night out in a significant number of cities. Too many of its games don’t matter, because too many of its teams have no chance.

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Yankees-Getty-FTR-101119.jpg

The big markets, bathing in local television revenue, can buy their way out of so many problems. The New York Yankees have not had a single losing season since 2000. They’ve averaged 94.3 wins per year. The Kansas City Royals, Pittsburgh Pirates, Milwaukee Brewers and Cincinnati Reds don’t have 20 winning seasons combined in that stretch, and they endured a total of 59 losing seasons. Each of them owns a losing overall record in this century.

In that period, the top five markets have averaged 13 winning seasons per team — there are eight of them, because New York, Chicago and LA have two teams each — and won six World Series. Every one averaged more than 80 victories.

The bottom five markets averaged six winning seasons per team over those two decades. They earned one World Series title, Kansas City’s 2015 triumph. Only the Cleveland Indians won more than 80 games on average. The Pirates, Royals and Reds averaged fewer than 74 victories.

MORE: Why MLB needed (and still needs) the 1998 home run race

The NFL has had six Super Bowl champions from outside the top 25 markets since 2000, and another four outside the top 15. That’s half the championships. Only three were won by teams from top-10 cities. Market size offers a minimal advantage, if any. It’s entirely about executing: scouting, drafting and signing by the front office, prudent decisions relative to the cap, hiring the right coach, building a winning culture and the players delivering on all of that.

In baseball, nine of the 20 World Series champs came from top-10 markets, and another seven from inside the top 15. That’s 80 percent won by the biggest cities. This is by design, not coincidence. Big-market wealth means never having to say, "Oops, I was wrong." It means being able to just write off a mistake and replace that player with another highly paid free agent.

All of this works great if you’re a fan of the Yankees or Dodgers, or if you’re Scott Boras. It’s terrible if you’re a fan of nearly half the teams in the league.

The thing about those big-market teams keeping so much of their television money to themselves: No network would pay millions to watch those teams play intrasquad games. Competition is the product baseball is supposed to be selling, but it is in woefully short supply.

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