Enough is enough.
That’s all I could think when I learned that Major League Baseball’s owners and players had failed to come up with a new financial agreement in their latest negotiations. The result is that opening day, originally set for March 31, has now been delayed. In fact, the first week of games has effectively been erased from the schedule. Even worse, there are no immediate plans to return to the bargaining table.
Or to quote baseball commissioner Rob Manfred, who was seen practicing his golf swing in the midst of negotiations, “Nothing is scheduled … It takes both parties to make an agreement.”
But what about the fans?
Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred answers questions during an MLB owner’s meeting at the Waldorf Astoria on February 10, 2022 in Orlando, Fla.
Julio Aguilar/Getty Images
I’m speaking as a 58-year-old lifelong baseball fan, one who came of age in New York City watching the Mets in their Tom Seaver-fueled glory days. Later, I switched my loyalties to the Florida (now Miami) Marlins when I moved to South Florida in the ‘90s. I’m now back in New York and follow both teams fairly closely — I pay for an MLB TV subscription and catch at least a game or two in person each season at the Mets’ Citi Field.
For me, baseball is a much-valued distraction from the troubles of the world. During the pandemic, that has been doubly the case — to the point I decided to make a pilgrimage to the National Baseball Hall of Fame last summer to celebrate my love for the game.
I suspect I’m no different than most fans in this regard: We need baseball, with its easy pace and endless stats, to forget the real statistics — say, the number of deaths due to COVID-19. Or now, the number of people killed since Russia invaded Ukraine.
So, I was really looking forward to opening day 2022. Instead, I’m living through the ninth baseball work stoppage in my lifetime. No other sport has such a contentious labor history, by my reckoning. The National Basketball Association (NBA) has had four lockouts/work stoppages. The National Football League (NFL) has had six (I’m not counting labor issues involving NFL referees).
So, what’s the latest baseball battle about? Naturally, money. There are various issues on the table, but the key one involves something called the Competitive Balance Tax — it’s effectively a form of a salary cap.
The idea is that teams going beyond a certain payroll level are hit with what amounts to a “luxury tax,” all in the name of keeping things fair between the big-market clubs with dollars to spare, and the smaller-market ones with less to spend. But by having that payroll “cap,” it means that clubs end up spending less per player on average.
As expected, owners want to cap things as much as possible — with a threshold that starts at $210 million per club this season (the same figure as it was in 2021, according to The Wall Street Journal) and increases to $230 million by 2026. The players are pushing for a threshold of $238 million this season, with steady hikes that bring that level to $263 million by 2026.
Most baseball observers side with the players in this latest battle: Baseball scribe R. J. Anderson, for example, faults the owners for their “radical vision,” noting their “unwillingness to relent or to bend toward a more agreeable number” when it comes to the Competitive Balance Tax.
““I don’t begrudge anyone the right to make money — this is capitalist America, after all. But I don’t expect those quibbling over an extra million here and there to win my sympathy.””
But here’s the thing: I’m sure the owners aren’t faultless, but I think fans don’t really care which side is right or wrong, since the money is so ridiculous either way. Keep in mind: The average salary of an MLB player is $4.17 million. (And the minimum was $570,500 last season.) By contrast, the average salary of American workers is around $51,000 a year.
And the owners? They’re hardly ones to cry poverty. A Forbes study found they’ve raked in $8 billion in profits since 2010. And despite Manfred’s claims that the stock market is a better investment than owning a baseball club, teams are seeing their valuations increase to staggering levels, as MarketWatch’s Weston Blasi reported. Consider my Miami Marlins: They were acquired by Jeffrey Loria in 2002 for $158.5 million and sold by him in 2017 for $1.2 billion. (And this for a team that has often been a baseball laughing stock.)
And this is what I really don’t get: Baseball should be mindful of holding on to the fans it has. The sport, once celebrated as our national pastime, has been in a downward spiral for years. Attendance peaked at nearly 80 million in 2007, but by 2019 — the last pre-pandemic season — it stood at 68 million. And TV viewership — at least for the World Series — is similarly plunging, from a peak of nearly 45 million viewers for the championship event in 1978 to around 12 million last year.
I’m not saying this is all because of the lockouts. In reality, other factors are much more critical — the slowness of the game, for example. While some of us older fans like the easy pace, let’s face it: Baseball doesn’t provide quite the adrenaline rush of an NBA contest. Indeed, MLB has looked at a host of ways to quicken the game — for better or worse.
At the same time, if a sport is struggling to find an audience — and I can’t think of a young person I know who is truly excited about baseball in the way I was as a kid — it’s hard to see how cancelling games is going to improve the situation. At the risk of stating the obvious: You can’t sell America on baseball if you’re not out on the field.
But the truth is owners and players are making money in spite of the slumping attendance and viewership. And they know that most fans will return no matter how long this labor dispute lasts — after all, we’ve returned following previous strikes. In effect, they feel they can afford to diss us, so they’ll let the bickering play out until they finally figure out how to split the $10 billion pie that is the baseball industry.