Basketball is talking showmanship.
“People are stuck at home, and I think they need a diversion, they need to be entertained,” said NBA Commissioner Adam Silver to ESPN.
Hockey is talking excitement.
“We cannot wait for the players to hit the ice again,” said NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman.
Baseball is talking greed.
“I gotta get my money, I’m not playing unless I get mine, OK?” said Tampa Bay pitcher Blake Snell.
Baseball is doing it again, the former national pastime behaving like a national joke, only this time it’s serious. This time baseball might not recover no matter how many steroids it injects. This time baseball could lose America for good.
Baseball, meanwhile, is engaged in a bench-clearing brawl with itself.
The owners don’t want to return unless they can give some of their best players about a 75% pay cut. The players don’t want to return unless the owners keep an original promise to prorate their current salaries for games played.
Amid a national economic nightmare, baseball is billionaires bickering with millionaires. Baseball is surplus fighting with excess. Baseball is badly in need of a sanitary wipe.
“We made a proposal to the union that is completely consistent with the economic realities of our sport,” said the league office in a statement this week.
The Major League Baseball Players Assn. responded with, “The proposal involves massive pay cuts and the union is extremely disappointed.”
At any other time, in any other setting, this would the usual stuff of sports labor strife. You hear it, you shrug, you understand it’s all part of the dance.
But in this environment, they sound like two people who have pulled down their masks and are standing in a grocery store aisle loudly arguing over possession of the last package of ultra soft toilet paper.
In this environment, they sound like idiots, and it looks like suicide. If baseball is truly willing to hand its summer spotlight to the NBA and NHL by surrendering to hubris and arrogance, then baseball as a major league in this country is done.
If the owners and players are really willing to let the 2020 season disappear for reasons based strictly on money — and not health and safety — then baseball’s already failing national perception goes bankrupt.
Who do they think they are, football? Don’t they realize the extent of their declining popularity? Don’t they read the polls, or the ratings, or, heck, just look in the stands?
In a 2018 Gallup poll, only 9% of adults chose baseball as their favorite sport to watch, ranking third behind football’s 37% and basketball’s 11%. Ranking fourth was soccer with 7%, but here’s guessing the huge and growing popularity of the international game has since moved soccer up.
Then there’s the human poll known as attendance, which has been declining for nearly 10 years. Baseball attracted about 68.5 million fans in 2019 after drawing nearly 80 million a dozen years earlier.
With the length of games, slowness of pace and lack of individual creativity, baseball is increasingly hard to watch, especially on TV. While the local cable markets do well, the national appetite is slowly dying, turning baseball into essentially a regional sport.
Even with a Game 7, last year’s World Series between the Washington Nationals and Houston Astros was the third least-watched “Fall Classic” in the last 47 years. A couple of months earlier, baseball’s All-Star game was watched by a record-low number, even worse than the NBA All-Star game’s pregame show. Because of the proliferation of viewing options, most TV ratings are lower these days, but baseball is trending sharply down.
The problem is not just how many people are watching, but who is watching. According to MarketWatch, the average age of baseball viewers is 57, with only 7% of viewers under 18.
Baseball needs to attract younger fans, which means it needs to get smarter and savvier. In this pandemic, that means being first. Baseball needs to be the first sport to play again, the first sport to help heal this country, just like it’s done after nearly every war or crisis in the last century. Baseball needs to seem important and relevant again, and that won’t happen with its owners and players engaging in tired old maneuvers.
The owners refusing to dip into their deep pockets for a more equitable salary arrangement with players won’t cut it.
Yet Washington Nationals pitcher Max Scherzer’s tweet won’t cut it either: “After discussing the latest developments with the rest of the players there’s no reason to engage with MLB in any further compensation reductions.”
The owners trying to use the pandemic to change a salary structure that could lead to a player-dreaded salary cap won’t cut it.
But New York Mets pitcher Marcus Stroman’s tweet also won’t cut it either: “This season is not looking promising.”
One of the reasons for the NBA’s great success is the teamwork between the owners and players. There is a real sense that they’re all in this together, and that makes for a stronger brand whose consistent entertainment value appeals to all fans.
The baseball owners and players are too busy constantly fighting to realize that most seriously bruised is their collective image.
The NBA’s Twitter account has 30.5 million followers. The Major League Baseball account has 8.6 million followers. One recent study showed that more than 90% of Americans had heard of LeBron James, while less than half had heard of Mike Trout.
Earlier this basketball season during a Lakers game in Phoenix, cameras caught James shaking hands with courtside-sitting Arizona Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray while National League MVP Cody Bellinger, sitting just two seats away, was completely ignored.
A couple of weeks later, at a Lakers game in Staples Center, fans gave Tom Lasorda a huge ovation when he was shown on the video board, but grew silent when the camera panned to Bellinger and fellow Dodger Kenley Jansen.
It isn’t that people don’t like Bellinger or Jansen. They’re two of the most likable athletes in town. The problem is that average sports fans don’t really recognize them because the most average sports fans don’t follow baseball.
A strong and timely return to the field this summer could begin to change that, but it won’t happen until owners and players realize they’re both wrong.
Seriously, just shut up and play ball.