My first published article appeared in our high school’s student newspaper during the fall of 1994. The topic? A work stoppage in Major League Baseball.
Approaching the story as both a passionate fan and newcomer to journalism, I fervently studied the ins and outs of this player strike, which ended up lasting 232 days and resulted in a vacant postseason for the first time in nine full decades.
At 16 years old, it was my introduction to the cold business side of the game I loved. I remember being proud of what I’d written, but also feeling much more jaded and cynical than I was before it all began.
So here we are, nearly 30 years later, staring down what appears to be a similar barrel. I’m still a fan of the sport – not like I was as a teenager, but enough to keep close tabs on the current lockout situation, which has seeped into Opening Day and resulted in the cancellation of early-season games. Minimum.
I have my personal thoughts on who and what is to blame, of course. Some point the finger at “ungrateful” players, who make millions of dollars to play “a kid’s game.” Others are fed up with the owners, who have collectively shown very little sense of urgency or interest in budging during the negotiation process. And frankly, their confidence is justified: they’re still holding most of the cards, so to speak.
I’m not going to focus as much on assigning responsibility here, but rather, simply say both sides need to come to an agreement. Soon.
Red flags and warning signs were everywhere even before the lockout began. Attendance average took a staggering hit in 2021, sinking to a 37-year low thanks to a 34-percent decrease from two years prior. World Series viewership dipped into the 9-12 million range for 2020 and ’21; half of what it was in the early 2000s, and only a blip on the radar compared to the 30-40 million average typical through 1993.
Apologists will dismiss those statistics as relative and remind us of the cultural shift in our entertainment options over the last 30 years. More channels, more devices, different screens, shorter attention spans. It’s hard to pique the interest of casual viewers who simply don’t have the time or patience to commit to a single sporting event for upwards of four hours on a given night.
And therein lies the point. We don’t collectively wait around for anything in our society anymore. Even as recently as the mid- to late-90s, Major League Baseball enjoyed a rebirth of sorts when players started to look more like professional wrestlers and games became juiced with towering home runs and fan-friendly ballpark productions.
The enhanced experience helped lead to a renaissance, so to speak, but what was a casual fan’s alternative at the time? Now, the possibilities – in front of a screen or in the real world – are endless.
Look, these franchises – and the owners – are still in the catbird seat today, even in the midst of a lockout. Thanks to the grotesque figures generated by live television contracts – iron-clad deals with FOX, ESPN and TBS spanning the next seven seasons at over half a billion dollars each, with lucrative regional contracts to boot – reality is both comfortable and distorted for those at the top of the food chain. It doesn’t help matters – or sound alarms – when the average value of an MLB ballclub has gone from the $100 million range 30 years ago to over $2 billion today.
So many philosophical changes are needed here, but it’s tough to sell the idea that the system is broken when money flows like this. As such, the cracks in the foundation will largely be ignored.
It shouldn’t. Trust of the loyal fan is waning. Interest from the casual one is eroding. Rapidly.
This is the fundamental flaw in saying present revenue is the only bottom line worth considering. Franchises are worth more than ever before, but the business model isn’t sustainable – especially when both the performance of ballclubs and general interest of the public aren’t dictating profit.
It’s a bubble just begging to burst within the next decade – especially given how frantically our society’s interests and habits are changing. If this play freeze extends beyond the early, chilly days of April, remember the winter of 2021-22 as an infamous moment in the timeline of the sport’s long-term decline.
Figure. It. Out.
Eric Pratt is Sports Editor at The Messenger. Contact him via email at [email protected], or on Twitter @ByEricPratt