Labor fight crowds out issues driving MLB’s decline

March 2, 2022 Atlanta - Third Base gates at Truist Park are locked on Wednesday, March 2, 2022. Six Braves games, all on the road, were canceled: the March 31 season opener against the Marlins in Miami, three more games in Miami through April 3 and two games against the Mets in New York on April 4-5. Still on the calendar for now – but endangered unless a deal is done within a week or so – is the Braves’ home opener April 7, when fans would welcome back the World Series champs to a sold-out Truist Park. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

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March 2, 2022 Atlanta - Third Base gates at Truist Park are locked on Wednesday, March 2, 2022. Six Braves games, all on the road, were canceled: the March 31 season opener against the Marlins in Miami, three more games in Miami through April 3 and two games against the Mets in New York on April 4-5. Still on the calendar for now – but endangered unless a deal is done within a week or so – is the Braves’ home opener April 7, when fans would welcome back the World Series champs to a sold-out Truist Park. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

MLB franchise owners and players are figuring out how to divide a very large pot of money. There doesn’t seem to be much discussion about improving the product. Growing baseball revenue has become disconnected from growing the game. The former obviously depends on the latter, but making baseball better requires vision and a long-term strategy.

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Those never have been strengths for MLB’s franchise owners and leaders. It’s worse now that their ranks have been infected by the extremist capitalist mindset of squeezing every penny out of an enterprise now with little care for potential repercussions later. Players spend more time talking about the good of the game. No doubt they care, but notice their advocacy mostly happens when the proposed remedies just so happen to align with their financial interests.

For me, the worst part about the ongoing labor dispute isn’t the possibility of missed games. It’s knowing that while an agreement means games will be played, it won’t do much to make baseball better and more popular. You know the list of problems by now.

Games have gotten longer despite rule changes designed to make them shorter. There is less action because fewer balls are put in play. Those developments probably are related to the increase in the average age of MLB fans. It also doesn’t help that MLB has plenty of young stars but is terrible at promoting them.

MLB and its players still will have to confront those issues once they agree on a labor deal. There’s little hope that they’ll do both at the same time. Lots of media leaks from negotiations are about the economics of the game. There’s been little talk about the actual playing of the games and how that’s connected to MLB’s growth.

That’s usually characterized as an “ancillary issue” to be worked out after the financials. But the games are the point of it all, even if some franchise owners would rather baseball be incidental to their business. A universal designated hitter is the only game-play topic that seems to be at the forefront of labor talks. That’s hardly the kind of progressive thinking that’s needed.

I get why baseball traditionalists tend to dismiss criticisms of the game as coming from those who don’t really like it, anyway. Keep changing the rules and, eventually, baseball will no longer be baseball. Some people like the game, some don’t. Take it or leave it.

But people who already love baseball should want it to be more popular. They should especially supports ways to make it more popular for young people. The more kids who play and watch baseball, the better for MLB’s future. Right now, it seems fewer and fewer kids care much about baseball.

A September 2020 poll by Morning Consult indicated that only 32% of Gen Z (ages 10-25) are fans of MLB. That’s compared with 37% for college football, 47% for the NBA and 49% for the NFL. A 2017 survey by Sports Business Journal found that the average age of MLB fans increased from 52 to 57 over the previous 10 years.

Kids losing interest in baseball could help explain MLB’s attendance decline. It reached an all-time high of 31,256 during the 1994 season. That season ended in August after players went on strike because owners tried to (illegally) implement a salary cap. When MLB returned for a shortened season in ‘95, average attendance dipped to 25,021 and didn’t break 30,000 again until 2004.

Baseball set new average attendance records in 2006, ‘07 and ‘08, but crowds dipped below 30,000 in 2017, ‘18 and ‘19. The average attendance in 2019 (28,203) wasn’t much better than the post-strike season of 1995. Average attendance for games last season was 18,651, with the caveat of COVID-19 restrictions. Previous trends mean MLB can’t count on people coming back during normal times.

Baseball had labor peace between 1995 and now, so that’s not the issue. People have become less interested in attending games for other reasons. More eyeballs on screens can make up for fewer behinds in seats, but that’s not happening with MLB.

Ratings for World Series games decreased by 50% from 2003 to 2021. That’s a much steeper decline than for overall network viewership. Forbes reported that the 29 regional sports networks saw a 12% decline in viewership in 2021 compared with 2019, the last full season. Only six MLB teams didn’t experience a drop. Ratings for Braves games in 2021 were down 25% from 2019.

It’s hard to pin down exactly which changes to the game (if any) would reverse those trends. Theories on the topic are speculative until tested. All we can go on is the changes people say they’d like to see in baseball.

There are some clues in a survey conducted by Seton Hall in the days after MLB team owners locked out the players. Five of the survey questions were about game play: universal designated hitters, defensive shifts, seven-inning doubleheaders, three-batter minimums for pitchers and starting extra innings with a runner on second.

Among respondents who said they are baseball fans (avid or casual) and expressed a preference, there was majority support for the three-batter minimum, DHs in both leagues and preserving the infield shift. Fans were against putting a runner on second to begin extra innings and split on seven-inning doubleheaders. MLB adopted both rules for the 2020 season.

For all respondents to the Seton Hall survey who expressed a preference, there was majority support for the three-batter minimum, keeping the shift and universal DH. They were against placing a runner for extra innings and split on seven-inning doubleheaders.

The Seton Hall poll also revealed problems for baseball in the big picture. It found that 54% of the general population has no interest in baseball and that 44% of avid fans (and 30% of all fans) say they’ll be less interested in baseball after a work stoppage.

“We know from previous work stoppages, whether initiated by management (lockout) or labor (strike), that fans tend to come back,” said Charles Grantham of Seton Hall’s Stillman School of Business. “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.”

It’s not clear that baseball is alarmed. It’s certainly not reflected by the content and tenor of negotiations. The money issue is important, of course. MLB is a business. Team owners want to maximize profits. Players want to be paid their full value. There always will be tension between those competing interests.

Once the two sides figure out how to split the money, they should be able to find common ground with making baseball better and more popular. I’m not hopeful that MLB and its players will get to that part before the games start again.