photo: Bill DeWitt Jr. and Rob Manfred (Jeff Roberson/AP)
I feel pretty comfortable in asserting that everyone even slightly involved with Major League Baseball is disappointed over the delays in owners and players coming to agreement on the structure of the 2020 season.
Unlike prior labor disagreements in baseball, when general fan sentiment seemed to be in support of ownership, the owners are taking a beating in the court of public opinion this time around.
Even so, it seems like some MLB team officials are not attuned to the depth of fan concerns aimed in their direction. It appears that they believe the game is bulletproof.
Misreading their customers?
I have little doubt that St. Louis Cardinals chairman Bill DeWitt Jr. could demonstrate a view of the books that would back up his assertion that baseball “isn’t very profitable.” Even so, using no more powers than simple common sense, most people suspect that when taking all of their related businesses into account, baseball is in fact a very good investment. DeWitt, a savvy and successful entrepreneur, has owned the St. Louis Cardinals for more than a quarter of a century and is one of the game’s most influential owners.
Chicago Cubs board chairman Tom Ricketts was recently quoted as saying the potential for losses this year are “biblical’ in scope. Again, one can imagine such a case being possible when considering the expenses related to starting up their new television network.
Yet, a short-term cash flow issue is very different from long-term asset growth and profitability. And as is the case for these privately-owned teams, their complete books are not public, requiring a level of trust in these kinds of comments that does not exist for many.
With literally billions of dollars at stake (when considering the next labor agreement to go into effect in December 2021), owners have no reason to share more information about their finances than is required. And that is well within their rights, just as it is for fans to be skeptical.
Speaking of fans, they are baseball’s (relatively) silent majority. They not only get no say in what is happening, their opinions are not even being acknowledged during the labor battle.
Well, come to think of it, that is not entirely the case.
This past weekend, Cardinals President of Baseball Operations John Mozeliak made the following statement to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. (I include the segment in its entirety so readers can see the context before I parse out several passages from it.)
“There is no doubt right now there is an enormous amount of distrust on both sides, and when we get back to playing baseball it must be everybody’s goal to rebuild that,” Mozeliak said. “If you look on Twitter, you’re going to find that it’s 50/50 as to who is at fault, and regardless of that answer that resentment or annoyance is not great for the game. There’s definitely a group of fans that aren’t active (on social media) and enjoy the game and are hopeful it will return — to have something else to watch other than Netflix. It’s the fact there are a number of fans on each of these sides that if we can’t get this right, there could be reason for concern.”
Let’s break down a few of these points.
“If you look on Twitter, you’re going to find that it’s 50/50 as to who is at fault…”
Is that really what owners and front office people think? Take this weekend poll of 1,100 people on social media, for example. It pegs public sentiment at two-thirds blaming the owners (with 5% on the players and 28% on both).
Who’s at fault for the current circus with MLB?
— Maury Brown (@BizballMaury) June 13, 2020
Note this poll was taken prior to Commissioner Rob Manfred’s Monday reversal on his comment five days earlier that he was 100 percent confident the 2020 season will be played. If anything, support of ownership has almost certainly further eroded since.
“There’s definitely a group of fans that aren’t active (on social media) and enjoy the game and are hopeful it will return — to have something else to watch other than Netflix,” Mozeliak said.
There are several very interesting implications from this quote.
First is that Mozeliak seems to be assuming that those on social media do not want to see MLB return ASAP. (In reality, they absolutely do, but just not on the owners’ terms.)
I suspect what he is getting at is that the vocal fans are relatively few but the silent majority are not that upset with the owners and will come back to the game quickly. I sense this has been an ongoing feeling, that their golden goose cannot be killed.
If so, it could help explain the recent foot-dragging. According to a player agent quoted by The Athletic,
“There are definitely more than eight owners who don’t want to play (the 2020 season).”
After all, why take any losses if you don’t have to? Earlier, owners stated they would lose $640,000 for every game played this season.
I cannot help but feel baseball’s leaders are misreading their customers – whether on social media or not – who want to see baseball in 2020. Most fans have apparently come to the realization is that the owners are the primary reason it may not happen.
Those in power may or may not understand this, but their recent public comments surely put it into question.
Will the game need to be “saved” in the future?
Having said that, how much is puffery and how much is real? It is impossible to separate fan emotion in the moment from their actions in the future. I suspect that owners may believe that most who assert they will stop supporting MLB will actually come back, or perhaps never leave.
Yet, there are plenty of sports writers even who talk about the game being on the road to ruin, unable to rebound from the debacle of 2020.
Some observers point to the highly-damaging 1994 strike, observing there is no McGwire-Sosa home run chase this time around to bring alienated fans back to the game. That is impossible to say without being able to see into the future.
Whether or not the home run battle actually saved the game, it is worth remembering that 1998 was the fourth season following the strike. Back in 1994, no one had any idea what was ahead – just like no one today knows what the state of the game will be in 2023.
Maybe owners are right. Maybe the game can survive the “disaster” of 2020 (Manfred’s word, not mine). Maybe the Cardinals will again draw 3.4 million content fans in 2021.
But what if they are wrong?
The Lords of Baseball seem to be judging their success by their financial ledgers, and leading up to 2020, indications are that MLB has been a very healthy business for its owners. But how much of baseball’s record revenues have come from higher prices, technology investments and commercial endorsements, rather than in growth of the game itself?
Long-term studies indicate that MLB is losing the hearts and minds of the fans – and has been for years.
Consider this Gallup Poll data, which stretches back to the pre-Bud Selig days. Also note the very small overall impact of the 1998 home run chase. Sosa and McGwire may have drawn attention to the game, but it did not significantly alter the long-term decline in MLB fan preference.
— Nate Silver (@NateSilver538) June 15, 2020
Eventually this is going to catch up with Major League Baseball. The only question seems to be “How soon?” and the debacle of 2020 is almost certainly another major step in that direction.
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