Cheap Seats

Baseball owners need to be careful they don’t run off the fans — or the players

With the NCAA football national championship game in the books, it’s officially time to turn our attention to major league baseball. Whether or not one of them ends up with the St. Louis Cardinals, it’s time for Bryce Harper and Manny Machado to make up their minds and pick a team.

It’s tough to get excited about the rapidly-approaching season when several dozen players remain on the open market. You can’t really get behind your club when you don’t know what your team is going to look like on opening day. So it could be nice to so we could start to wrap up the winter and begin to think about the spring. Pitchers and catchers are supposed to report to camp in only about five weeks.

I’m not sure what’s holding things up. It’s odd that major league owners are being suddenly stingy the last two winters with contracts when revenue is at all all-time high. Are they trying to start a labor war when the current collective bargaining agreement is up? It’s not that the talent isn’t there. You could probably put together a pretty competitive team with the players who are left on the market. So it’s suspicious that things are lingering on. Three years ago, major league owners couldn’t wait to lavish insane contracts on players that could make their team even a little bit better.

What’s the end game here?

I’m in favor of keeping baseball affordable for the average family, so I’m not crying any tears that they have to live on $10 million a year instead of $11 million. But anyone who buys tickets to a game realizes that prices aren’t coming down, or even stabilizing, as payrolls declined in 2018. If owners are looking for a fight, I hope they’ll make it worth while and come up with a system that will create competitive balance and at least hold the line on the cost of going to games with a salary cap.

While major league leaders are obsessed with pace of play and length of games, they ought to be thinking about ways to make going to the ballpark affordable. It’s true that revenue is up. But it’s also true that attendance is down about four percent. The money that is coming in is generated by television contracts, not people in the seats. That may be fine for the bottom line right now. But baseball, and all professional sports for that matter, are driven by fans in the stands. Without the roar of the crowd, there is no excitement and no drama. Could you imagine watching a game on television that was being played in an empty ballpark?

It’s hard to believe all major league owners suddenly decided at the same time that they were going to become more careful with the contracts they dole out. They better be careful. One thing I can say for sure is that, as they’re trying to make the game more fan friendly, is that the last thing the sport needs is another long labor dispute. I’m not sure there is another Mark McGwire of Sammy Sosa out there right now to save the game this time.