Between all the rhetorical sparks emanating from the greedy owners and the greedy players, it’s difficult to spot the side that’s most to blame for Major League Baseball’s current lockout – the fans.
Though no one will blame them, the other two sides understand that all of this is only possible because of the fans. They didn’t just allow it to happen. They encouraged it.
“The fans” get talked about a lot, as though they are some monolithic victim in all of this. Commissioner Rob Manfred wrote them a whole letter a few days ago.
“The Clubs and our owners fully understand just how important it is to our millions of fans that we get the game on the field as soon as possible,” Manfred said.
It’s hard to grasp how one can “fully understand” something that isn’t true. Unless Manfred believes the “how important”-level here is “not very”.
But that sort of dodge is Manfred’s management style in a nutshell. He says things – for instance, that delaying the season was a “disastrous outcome” as he was getting ready to delay the season – because they sound like the sort of thing a sports commissioner says. Whether they are strictly true doesn’t figure in it.
Along with the owners and players, Manfred does understand one thing about the fans – that they are suckers.
It is not just that games have become interminable, that money and numbers are coring the soul from baseball, that the worse a team is, the more it costs to see it or that MLB schedules the World Series as though its target audience is “avid bar-hoppers just getting home from the club”. It is that all of these things are done and people keep coming back.
The 2020 pandemic season fully clued the owners in to how feckless their customers are: “Hey, we don’t feel like paying these guys if the stadiums are empty so we’re going to bust the season down to a third of its usual length. That cool with you?” “Sorry, what?” “No regular season. All playoffs. We good?” “Yeah, okay, whatever.”
What do you do with an audience that undemanding? You start working them over a lot harder.
That’s what’s happening here. Consumer pliability has encouraged two groups of people who already have too much to slap it out for even more. The foundation of this fight is the rock-solid belief that fans will be back.
Maybe not all at once. The baseball media loves citing the fact that after the 1994-95 lockout, it took 10 years for attendance numbers to recover. But the important part of that sentence is at the end – they recovered.
So what is the more likely effect of suffering a horrendous three-day hangover? That you never drink again? Or that you do, knowing that you shouldn’t schedule any dental work until Day 4?
Twenty years ago, while in the midst of this apparent fan revolt, the average value of a baseball franchise was about US$300-million. Today, it’s nearly US$2-billion.
So if you are one of the involved parties, what’s the lesson you’ve been taught by the fans? That crime (against the national pastime) pays.
Knowing that, ownership sees an opportunity to right-size their business. This requires a two-pronged approach. First, you must pretend to negotiate, but neither negotiate nor pretend too hard. Sure, people will hate you. But hate is a species of passion.
Let them hate you all they want from the seat you will eventually sell them at 20-per-cent more than they paid last season.
Second, you chisel the players until they turn on each other. So far, they haven’t done that. Which only means you haven’t been chiselling them for long enough. Keep chiselling. Baseball is not for quitters.
If you’re labour, it is once again time to complain about making millions without sounding like you’re complaining. No one has figured out how to do that, but the players keep trying.
Even the style of dress changes in times of lockout. No more flash. Everyone keeps it casual in golf shirts and ill-fitting khakis. Maybe it’s because the only normal people these guys ever interact with are caddies. Maybe they think this is what the working class looks like.
Take Max Scherzer, one of the union’s point men. He loves a golf shirt.
Here he is the other day to The New York Times: “It’s not about me. It’s about everybody else … I’m willing to fight for those guys, and willing to sacrifice my salary to make sure that they can make the most that they can.”
That’s some real Jimmy Hoffa stuff there – “Sacrifice my salary.” This from a guy who’s banked more than US$200-million in his career. What’s he sacrificing exactly? That Fabergé egg he’s been thinking about getting his wife for Veterans Day?
It’s also important for both sides to pretend very hard that the longer this goes on, the more trouble baseball is in.
This is the one thing everybody in baseball, from the C-suites to the beat reporters, can agree on. That baseball faces an extinction-level event. One that gets activated when exactly? No one knows. But it must be May. May is definitely baseball Armageddon.
Until May arrives without baseball. Then doomsday gets moved to June. And July. Maybe August at a stretch.
People are free to speak in apocalyptic terms because they know everything’s going to be fine. However long they delay the season, fans will return. The TV money will still be there. The only difference will be between guys getting “buy a garage full of Porsches” rich or “buy a Porsche dealership” rich.
If anyone believed any different – if they even suspected there was a microscopic chance that this would blow up in their hands – there would be no lockout. Holistic greed+inelastic fan demand=lockout. That’s all the economics you need to understand.
Only two things are certain about the way this ends. That whenever that is, everything will continue on as it has. And that immediately after baseball Ragnarok has been avoided, we’ll be force-fed stories about how the game has never been stronger. Because it has such great fans.