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Baseball can’t get out of its own way

The sport had a golden opportunity to monopolize attention and airwaves — and blew the opportunity

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World Baseball Classic - Championship Round - Game 3 - USA v Puerto Rico
Under the leadership of Rob Manfred and Tony Clark, the relationship between the owners and players has eroded – leading to a massive missed opportunity now and setting up an extremely difficult CBA negotiation in 2021.

With each passing day, it becomes more and more clear that the brain trusts that oversee and operate Major League Baseball (players, owners, union leadership, and commissioner) can’t see the forest for the trees. It seems each side is more interested in winning short-term zero-sum battles than growing and expanding the game. This has been true for the past five years under the current leadership, almost regardless of the issue at stake.

The current negotiations to bring the game back from its pandemic induced hiatus are just the most recent example. Under Rob Manfred and Tony Clark, it seems the net result of any discussion or negotiation is increased tensions and escalating brinkmanship. At issue in the current situation is a fight over a few hundred million dollars, a small fraction in the larger picture of an industry that generates upwards of $10 billion in annual revenue. This short-term mindset is endangering the game. I blame both sides – players and owners – for a lack of strategic vision regarding the future of the game and wonder why any of us should have faith they’ll do what’s in the best interest of growing the sport and ensuring its health for the future.

Each side wants us to believe they are being slighted or harmed, or are at least in worse shape than we assume, in some way. The billionaire owners are crying poor and predicting huge financial losses if the players return at their contracted salaries. This comes while franchise values have exploded over the past decade. The players, for their part of this, might have more of a leg to stand on given the backdrop of the contentious collective bargaining negotiations in 2016 that created new incentives for teams to manipulate the game’s fundamentally flawed economic system at the labor’s expense. The seemingly daily stories and news breaks that are full of strategic leaks to the media about the sticking points in the negotiations are evidence of the toxicity of the relationship between the owners and the players.

To be sure, there is much at stake in the lead up to the next bargaining negotiations in the winter of 2021. But instead of working together to capitalize on a great strategic opportunity to be the first major U.S. sport back in action, it feels like both sides are more interested in fortifying their positions for next winter. They’ve resorted to “negotiating” – if you can call it that – through the media and bending themselves into contortions to win the public relations arguments.

Despite whatever truths exist in those arguments, it all comes across as tone deaf and short sighted, given the other issues the world is currently dealing with and the precarious nature of baseball’s position in a competitive market. Billionaires pointing fingers at millionaires, and vice versa, in times like these is not engendering any good will or doing anything to help baseball’s popularity. And therein lies the larger point.

Baseball has been in a very difficult strategic position in a competitive marketplace for years. In a strange way, the pandemic handed the sport a golden opportunity to flip the script of its market situation, and that opportunity has now been blown.

The issue of baseball’s competitive position has been well covered in the popular media. In summary, it boils down to the facts that the sports landscape is saturated with content and the content consumption preferences of consumers has been changing. Many factors play into that, most notably mobile devices and connectivity, but the fact remains that consumers are inundated with content options and have evolved their habits to consume things in shorter bursts and over a larger variety of platforms. Baseball, a game with a significant amount of inaction inherent to its structure and high dependence on regional television networks, is somewhat poorly situated to compete in the age of divided attention spans. The game is full of critical thinking and strategizing about possibilities but is comparatively light on the types of action that grab attention and sustain engagement.

The net result is that baseball has been in a tenuous strategic position. Only 9% of Americans selected baseball as their favorite sport to watch in a 2017 Gallup poll, the lowest percentage for the sport since the annual survey began asking the question in 1937. The declining interest in the sport bears out in other data showing declining levels of interest in younger age groups, declining stadium attendance figures, and steadily increasing ages of television viewers. One glimmer of hope is that youth participation in baseball has been increasing the past few years.

Nonetheless, the point remains that baseball is a business in a very competitive landscape. That competitive landscape has been the driving factor in the pace of play ideas Commissioner Manfred has put forward in recent years. These ideas, the impact of which are still unknown, are intended to make baseball more consumable and attractive in the content marketplace. Put another way, the owners and their commission have assessed the competitive outlook for baseball in its current form as so dire, they are willing to entertain disrupting the on-field product to become more attractive to consumers. The wisdom of their approach to this problem is questionable, but that they are willing to go there illustrates the weight of the situation.

Against that backdrop, the sport was handed a fortuitous break in a sports landscape almost completely devoid of competition for a period of weeks or even a few months in the wake of the pandemic. The pandemic gifted baseball a clear opportunity to own the airwaves and sports attention span by being the first major U.S. sport to return to action. Certainly, there are risks that are difficult or impossible to mitigate – health and safety chief among them. But if the sport had been able to come together and find a way to resume its season, it could have had the stage to itself. Baseball could have been the only game in town, so to speak.

There are many potential scenarios that could have played out. Imagine if baseball had been able to start its season this month, in June. June is normally a month dominated by playoffs in hockey and basketball. But gone would those competitors be. Sports consumers are desperate for live games with scores that count and outcomes that are unknown. Baseball could have been the sole supplier – a veritable monopoly on team sports and the drama that comes with them.

Or perhaps June could have been dedicated to Spring Training, with Opening Day scheduled for Independence Day. What better symbolism and morale booster for a country reeling from a pandemic, recession, and social unrest than the national pastime triumphantly returning on our national holiday? The story line almost writes itself and the marketing and hype opportunities would have been endless.

Unfortunately, we’ll never know how many new boys and girls would have fallen in love with our favorite game. We’ll never know how many adults would have rediscovered their love for baseball or tried it for the first time because nothing else was on. We’ll never know for sure if this opportunity to own the market would have improved baseball’s popularity and position for future generations. It’s impossible to know for sure the impact taking advantage of this opportunity could have had – but it stands to reason the sport certainly would have had better chances as the only option in a mostly sports free environment than it will when it does return.

We’ll never know, because baseball blew it.

Both sides waited too long, waiting for a better deal that was never going to come, focused on the issues and dollars of today instead of the long-term future of the game. The opportunity to own the stage is gone. Now when baseball does return it will again be competing in a saturated market – basketball and hockey appear to be closing in on returns and football is only around the corner – having made no hay on its golden opportunity.

That might make it sound like it will be right back where it started, but I’d argue it will be worse off. The damage has been done with infighting and shortsighted greed, dismaying and disappointing those of us of who count the sport as our favorite, and adding another failure to put the good of the game above short-term priorities to the stack. Ostensibly, the negotiations of the past several weeks have been approached with the future in mind, but I’ll forgive you for doubting if the leaders involved were thinking big enough. Perhaps all this posturing will pay off with a smooth and effective labor negotiation next winter – but will that really matter in the long run if the stewards of game’s future are willing to squander obvious opportunities to address the game’s biggest threat for just a few hundred million dollars?