After a lockout and a lengthy period of inaction on the part of the league, MLB and players’ union representatives met for a week of in-person talks at the end of February. However, they have yet to make major progress in negotiating a new collective bargaining agreement before today’s deadline to avoid a delayed start to the 2022 season, imposed by the league. As MLB would have it, failure to reach terms will result in the second delayed season of the past three years. However, the union does not agree that this situation should necessarily push back Opening Day, as it would be possible to compress the regular-season schedule with doubleheaders or even extend the slate further into October.
MLB’s goal appears to be forcing players into major concessions with the threat of lost income, calculated by The Associated Press (AP) at US$20.5 million per day. While the AP notes high-earning players like Max Scherzer and Gerrit Cole would lose hundreds of thousands of dollars per day, the loss would actually be much more painful for younger players who have yet to reach free agency and sign big contracts.
The union has countered MLB’s threat by stating they will refuse to agree to an expanded postseason and uniform advertisements if players are not paid for a full 162-game season. This is one of the union’s biggest levers in this process, as playoff rights are a major piece of TV revenues for the league and owners. Players agreed to an expanded format as part of the return to play agreement for the 2020 shortened season.
The owners’ refusal to come to the table until recently is a major gamble, as the situation in 2022 is entirely different than 2020. In 2020, all team sports were shut down, so fans were more tolerant of the delayed start and shortened season. In 2022, the pandemic is not over, but public health restrictions are being phased out as Western governments have seemingly reached the conclusion that a high daily death toll is acceptable as long as there is hospital capacity to admit new patients. Many North American entertainment venues will likely no longer have any vaccine passport or masking requirements heading into the summer. The gears of capitalism will continue to grind, and if MLB does not start on time, fans will have plenty of other options to choose from.
MLB’s current regime has been very successful for owners. Revenue steadily increased from 2001 to 2019, reaching a record $10.7 billion before dropping in 2020 due to the pandemic shutdowns. After surviving a black swan event in 2020, owners behave as if the gravy train will never stop, even though attendance dropped to a 37-year low in 2021 and even its commissioner acknowledges that the game has been diminished from the “national pastime” to a sport of regional interest.
More Manfred on the Braves name: "We don’t market our game on a nationwide basis. Ours is an everyday game. You’ve gotta sell tickets every single day to the fans in that market. And there are all sorts of differences between the regions in terms of how the teams are marketed.”
— Chelsea Janes (@chelsea_janes) October 26, 2021
Results from the Seton Hall Sports Poll suggest a delayed start will be damaging to MLB’s standing with a high percentage of avid sports fans.
Despite the contract impasse, negotiators on both sides should take heed of the 44 percent of avid fans (and 30 percent of all fans) that say a stoppage would make them feel less interested in MLB once the games resume.
“That is a large percentage of the MLB fan base,” said Charles Grantham, Director of the Center for Sport Management within Seton Hall’s Stillman School of Business, which sponsors the Poll. We know from previous work stoppages, whether initiated by management (lockout) or labor (strike), that fans tend to come back. Today, however, there is immense competition in entertainment. These numbers are not encouraging and should be very concerning for a sport attempting to reverse a steady decline in ratings and attendance.”
MLB stands to lose its revenue gains if it cannot retain its current fan base. According to the Seton Hall poll, 54% of the general republic reports no interest in MLB. Further erosion of MLB fandom will result in smaller TV contracts. Disney has already reduced its regular-season commitment for MLB games televised on ESPN in 2022, saving 22% in comparison to the previous deal. The owners’ union-busting gamble may boost teams’ bottom lines in the short term but permanently end Major League Baseball’s relevance in the North American sports landscape.
Featured Image: WASHINGTON, DC – SEPTEMBER 28, 2015. Rob Manfred, Commissioner of Major League Baseball, is interviewed by legendary journalist Marvin Kalb at the National Press Club in Washington, DC by Al Teich / Shutterstock.com.