Of all the things I don’t understand in sports, high amongst them are diehard baseball fans who watch all 162 regular season games of their favorite team. These people exist, and in surprisingly large number, and I swear they feel like another species. There’s both the sheer time commitment involved – multiply 162 times three hours – and the reality that the vast majority of any baseball game involves little to no activity. I honestly feel like watching a full season of baseball is like making someone eat an entire wedding cake. At some point, it becomes work.
Fortunately, it looks like no one is going to have to watch 162 regular season games this year. And they certainly aren’t watching spring training games in Florida and Arizona, which should be happening right now. That’s because the owners and players are stuck in a labor dispute over, not surprisingly, money, which has the players locked out until they strike a deal. We assumed that would happen earlier this winter, at least not long after their current collectively bargained deal ended on December 1. With both sides fairly far apart, MLB commissioner Rob Manfred has already cancelled each team’s first two series and has said they won’t be rescheduled. Which means that in this game of economic chicken, the owners driving down the center stripe.
The actual dispute, not that it really matters, is largely about the luxury tax, which is kind of a defacto salary cap, and how much money is available to younger, pre-arbitration players. Essentially, the players want to be able to make as much as they can, which makes sense, and the owners want cost certainty and competitive balance. And it’s for that very reason that many, if not most sports fans side with the billionaires over the millionaires. From an optics perspective, the players are put in the unwinnable situation of wanting more than they already get, while the owners look like they’re the guardians of the game. That may be way off base, but that’s quite often a verdict of the court of public opinion. And also remember, when it comes to who can play the long game, owners are rich forever; players, on the other hand, can only make money for so long. Which is why I’m betting on the owners to win, as they generally do over the history of all major sports work stoppages.
There are a couple of commonly accepted myths that probably feed into the general angst of the American baseball public, the majority of whom are horrified by the current state of affairs. One, the idea that if baseball has an extended strike, this will disenfranchise a whole generation of young sports fans and the sport will never recover. If a six month lockout kills the game of baseball, then the sport had bigger issues. Football, basketball, and hockey have all had work stoppages, and they all found their way back – in some cases, stronger than ever. Baseball’s trajectory has little to do with whether they sit out the first 60 games, or even more, and a lot more with whether they can figure out how to make a slow and increasingly regional game appealing to young fans who never saw it as their first love. Believe it or not, soccer does not need baseball to falter to pick up eyeballs. They’ll do that on their own, thank you very much.
And two, there’s this strange idea that if we were in this situation on either side, we’d act differently; this odd truism that any average person would play pro sports for free, that if you were a billionaire owner, you’d never lock out players over what amounts to pocket change. It’s just not true. In the end, if any of us were in that same situation, and went through what they did to get there as a player or owner, we’d do the exact same thing. Sport, like a lot of American commerce, is built on the foundation of greed and capitalism. Whether it’s James Harden screwing two NBA teams to get to Philadelphia or Stephen Ross firing Brian Flores for not catering to his bizzare whims, everyone’s looking to get theirs. That’s not a critique, but simply a fact. And thinking we’d somehow act differently in the same situation shows how little most of us truly understand about pro sports.
Of course, there’s lots I don’t understand about sports. Including, why anyone would want to watch 162 baseball games in the first place.
Keith Strudler is the director of the School of Communication and Media at Montclair State University. You can follow him on twitter at @KeithStrudler
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