MLB Lockout: The Backdrop
“You’re getting too big of a share,” say the owners who let themselves be talked into enormous contracts for mediocrity. “Why don’t you pay your best players?” asks the union.
Major League Baseball and the Major League Baseball Players Association have done virtually nothing in the way of labor talks since the end of the World Series and as such are now without a collective bargaining agreement heading into the 2022 season. The old “billionaires vs millionaires” complaint could certainly be made as a lack of perspective on both sides is evident when you consider inflation, rents and homelessness are increasing across the country. But beyond that, there is also the question of the actual financial health of the game as players and owners are griping they need bigger pieces of the pie.
Even before 2019, the game of baseball had been struggling to keep the fans it had and to grow its fan base. Covid-19 was the latest another body shot to Major League Baseball in its effort to stay relevant. People found a lot of new activities (Tik Tok videos) and a lot of old activities (hiking, swimming, outdoor sports) they had forgotten about. The sport, if you haven’t figured it out, is relying on the misguided belief by owners that the sport is healthy just because the value of their teams keeps increasing. The values obscure an important point: the irrational actions of desperate television networks are artificially pumping money into the sport. And as viewership decreases, the money being spent on MLB games can only eventually decrease with it. The networks originally lost viewership to competing cable and now both are in the same boat, losing even more to social media. So, right now, the owners are the equivalent of the guy who thinks that just because he gained 40 pounds he’s better off, despite the fact that his blood pressure has sprouted a map of veins on his face and his socks now cut a two-inch deep crease in his ankles. Sure, he’s using the motorized cart at the food mart and it hauls ass, but is he really better off?
The answer is no. The health of the game is the worst its been since before the advent of television. The number of people who watch the World Series is not about one-third what it was 40 years ago. From 2008-2019, MLB had eight World Series with ratings below 8.9, according to baseball-almanac.com. The 40 years before that? Not a single year in the single digits. in 1978, it was the most-watched event on television. Then, the 1981 strike hit and the beginning of the downfall began. What we took for granted was ripped from us. Our heroes wanted more. The owners didn’t want to open their wallet. Obviously, neither cared about the fans or they would have figured it out. Then there was the big one…the strike of 1994 that robbed us of a World Series, a chance to see Tony Gwynn try to hit .400, Matt Williams to try to hit 61 home runs, and for the Montreal Expos to try to win it all for the first time (and to save the franchise). Every time there is a stoppage, the sport loses another wave of older fans and another chance for those fans to pass on the game to the next generation. But, somehow, the dying industry of television continues to pay inflated amounts for a product that has long since lost its fan base. It’s important, but the owners don’t seem to see it, and with shortsighted op-eds from the likes of Forbes, it isn’t hard for them to continue to have their heads in the sand. And with the way travel ball teams are turning little league players and families away from the sport, it promises to only to get worse.
So, it is with this as a backdrop that MLB locks out players as a “defensive” strategy. Besides the fact that this kind of “defense” is kind of like slapping the man behind you in line at the grocery store to prevent him from slapping you first, MLB does make some valid points in its labor arguments and a letter to the fans from early December.
Please do not adjust your televisions (awesome 1970s reference). Please do not check your eyeglass prescriptions (you can clean them, but otherwise, they’re probably fine). The Spitter did just say “MLB does make some valid points.”
The league has proposed doing away with the aggravating strategy of teams to keep their best players in the minors in order to increase the number of years those players are under team control. Sacrificing 30 games this year gets them a full 162 later. You can’t blame the teams. You can blame the system. The new system would base free agency on age. In an attempt to limit tanking, teams would have a minimum salary. They would also be entered into a draft lottery without a guarantee of a payoff for intentionally sucking.
Strangely, MLB would also increase the luxury (ahem, “Competitive Balance”) tax threshold. The Dodgers had to pay nearly $33 million in penalties. According to SI.com,
The 2021 penalties for first-time payors checked in at 20% on every dollar between $210MM and $230MM, 32% on overages between $230MM and $250MM, and 62.5% on each dollar spent above $250MM.
MLB is also against reducing the amount of time a player would have to play for their first team.
All seem like common-sense proposals. The only one that is not is the proposal to put the designated hitter in both leagues. For a game that has an advantage over other sports in the ability of fans to play “What if?”, eliminating the pitcher’s ability to hit, bunt or strike out will take away a lot of strategy. For American League managers, especially inexperienced ones, this would be welcomed as it would reduce the opportunities they have to screw up in the postseason going against National League opponents.
CBS Sports reviewed the two sides agreements as well, and if you wish to read section XXIII of the recently expired CBA, you can do so there. Or, you can chew on a rusty nail and see if you get tetanus. Your choice.
The gist is, there isn’t really a salary cap and there should be for the health of the smaller teams. Also, players should be brought up when they are ready to play, not when the number of service days reaches a threshold of blah blah blah to blah blah blah. Also, the runner-on-second, pitcher-ends-up-forced-to-hit-because-the-position-player-needs-to-be-saved, extra-inning, time-saving gimmick simply needs to go away.
Not really related to any of the preceding, but still needed to be said is this: MLB teams need to do a better job sharing whatever wealth they have with the people who work in their staff positions and who staff their minor league teams. Many positions within minor league squads require significant hours and pay squat. They are fine for 20-year-old kids who can live six to an apartment, but they aren’t a livable wage for anyone with a family. Many seasonal employees make squat and live on the ramen diet while the millionaire players and the billionaire owners argue over who gets to wear the shiniest gold shoes to the ball. The lady slinging popcorn can spray paint her flip flops gold, but it isn’t quite the same. Some of the millions of dollars should go to those at the low rungs of the pay scale. While the owners are at it, they could also throw in a 30-percent decrease in food and alcohol sales. People can afford to attend a steadily decreasing number of games. If the teams make it more affordable, families can feel like they can go to more games and can spend more money in the long run.
Also, while there is a lot of money still in this sport, there is not a lot of participation in the sport. High school teams are scrambling to field teams. Little leagues are seeing fewer teams in their divisions. MLB has enacted MLB Kids, Play Ball and Urban Youth Academies. MLB would be wise to do what it can to increase Little League participation and decrease travel ball participation. Pushing kids out of the sport does nothing but kill it. MLB has tried to grow baseball in inner cities, but it’s probably too soon to really see any long-term progress in that area.
Not all is lost. MLB has the money to save itself and to grow the game. Getting the players union involved with something besides being concerned about higher salaries and service time wouldn’t hurt. Both sides should focus on competitive balance, sign a new CBA, and then get back to the table to figure out how to increase participation and viewership to a point where its current TV contracts are warranted. If they don’t, the above trends will continue and that’s not good for anyone…besides Tik Tok.