As a game and entertainment product, Major League Baseball has plenty of problems.
- the pace of play is dreadful;
- strikeouts and walks are up and action is down;
- stolen base attempts are becoming extinct;
- a ball is only put in play every four minutes;
- just 20 per cent of generation Z members consider themselves fans of the game.
Yet instead of spending the offseason trying to fix these problems, owners and players have spent it whining about how to split hundreds of millions of dollars.
A great game is slowly dying, and owners and players have put that fact on the back burner in order to fight for a few more greenbacks in their wallets today.
I think the satisfaction of any short-term financial win – for either side – will be overshadowed by significant damage to the game if opening day of the season is wiped out and regular season games are lost.
The age of baseball’s average fan is getting older. Youngsters who typically played baseball are turning to sports like lacrosse, soccer and skateboarding. And research reveals that the chances of a young person becoming a lifelong fan of a given sport are significantly less if that youngster doesn’t play that sport as a child. When it comes to baseball, young people are checking out, and without spring training and the excitement of opening day, that exodus will increase.
Older fans are also checking out because the game they love has become little more than the ‘three true outcomes’ (strikeouts, walks and home runs). They don’t have time for financial squabbles, and they don’t like the product they’ve seen on the field the last five to 10 years. They’re ready to move on and figure they can get their baseball fix by watching college, high school and summer amateur games.
The lack of action and decreasing entertainment value have impacted MLB attendance, which is down more than seven per cent since 2015 and 14 per cent since the high point in 2007.
From a strategic baseball standpoint, analytics-driven tactics (ubiquitous shifts, batters swinging with huge uppercuts and not worrying about trying to put the ball in play in quest of home runs, risk-averse baserunners avoiding stolen base attempts, etc.) have worked. But they’re damaging baseball as an entertainment product.
I fully understand the importance of getting a collective bargaining agreement that provides financial stability for all stakeholders. I also understand that from a fandom perspective, baseball is losing ground to the other major professional sports due to all the reasons mentioned above – reasons that have made baseball more boring and thus less enticing as an entertainment product.
Everyone knows this labour dispute will eventually get settled. The owners will be happy with some things and not others. Same with the players.
But owners and players alike will be losers – as will the game itself – if the regular season doesn’t start on time and another shortened season results.
The saddest part is that players and owners aren’t even talking about ways to address the game’s problems during these ‘negotiations.’
They’d rather spend their time in a battle to the death to see who can be the greediest.
Ken Reed is sports policy director for League of Fans (leagueoffans.org), a sports reform project. He is the author of The Sports Reformers, Ego vs. Soul in Sports, and How We Can Save Sports. For interview requests, click here.
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