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If MLB Cancels the 2020 Season, What Happens to Baseball?

The loss of baseball this summer could do more than just alienate fans and hurt a generation of players. It could damage the future of the league—and sport—for decades to come.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

In an alternate universe, one in which a deadly virus didn’t tear through the world, in which there were no headlines about hydroxychloroquine or N95 masks, in which we all kept commuting and going to happy hours and lightly testing the ripeness of apples at the store, Major League Baseball had a plan.

The Nationals would revel in their first World Series victory, celebrating with a ring ceremony that wouldn’t alienate much of the team. The Angels would finally emerge as contenders; Mookie Betts would wear Dodger blue; the Yankees would—ugh. And the lyin’, cheatin’ Astros would be heartily booed by fans in every city outside of Houston.

But now, in the middle of June, it seems possible that MLB might not have a 2020 season at all. On Monday, commissioner Rob Manfred told ESPN that he was “not confident” that a season would take place, just days after insisting that he was “100 percent” certain it would.

The players and owners are months into an extended, fractious dispute centered on the number of games that can realistically be played this year, and how much the players—who rightly have serious concerns about returning to work during the COVID-19 pandemic—would be paid in a partial season. The central tension stems from an agreement reached between MLB and the MLB Players Association in March, after the league first went on hiatus. That deal gave the league the power to set a schedule unilaterally while guaranteeing the players prorated salaries and protecting the advancement of service time. Ever since, the owners have wanted players to agree to accept much smaller payments.

The owners have submitted four successive proposals to the players, for regular seasons that would span 82, 76, 72, and 60 games, respectively. The latest was submitted on Wednesday; the MLBPA has yet to respond. The financial considerations in all four have included similar payouts to the players: between $1.2 and $1.5 billion leaguewide, or about 30 to 35 percent of what the players would have made in a full 162-game season. As Cardinals ace Jack Flaherty noted on Twitter on June 8, MLB has kept proposing “the same deal worded differently.”

With both sides at a standstill, fans have grown impatient. And Manfred’s comments Monday could only make things worse. “My worry is that if there are no games it will hasten the decline of baseball, which has suffered over the past few years,” says Rob Friedman, an analyst for MLB and ESPN who is perhaps better known online as Pitching Ninja.

For baseball, the prospect of losing a year—maybe more than a year, depending on both the timeline for a vaccine and the looming negotiation of the players’ collective bargaining agreement, which is set to expire in December 2021—is grimmer than it may be for other sports. Baseball is in the middle of a cultural reckoning. Under Manfred, MLB has vocally wrestled with the question of how to make people care about the sport. The league has proposed a raft of pace-of-play initiatives intended to speed up the game, some of which have already been implemented. Manfred has even gone so far as to publicly criticize Mike Trout, the game’s undisputed best player, for not being marketable enough. Football fans will presumably wait around no matter how long the NFL takes to start a new season. But baseball fans? Well, the fact that it’s even a question isn’t a great sign.

Unlike basketball and hockey, baseball had the sour luck of the shutdown of American society beginning just weeks before its regular season was set to commence. While those other leagues had most of their seasons in the can before social distancing took effect, and while the NFL still has months to go before it plans to start televising games, baseball alone faces the possibility of an entire season going up in smoke.

But it’s not just a question of scheduling. Historians and commentators alike suggest that baseball’s present state—from its simple absence from our screens, to the growing bitterness around the league, to the long-term damage being done to the minor league and prospect pipeline—might spell doom for the sport. Feelings of resentment are especially strong among fans. As Jake Mintz, one of the cofounders of Céspedes Family BBQ and the cohost of The Ringer’s Baseball BBQ podcast, puts it, “losing a half-season this year because it’s not COVID-safe versus losing all of this year and next because the owners won’t pay the players are two super different things and would impact interest differently.”

If baseball loses a season, it might lose a great deal more.

It is a cliché, if not itself an American pastime, to greatly exaggerate the reports of baseball’s death. Those reports, after all, are almost as old as the sport. In 2014, my colleague Bryan Curtis noted that the onetime captain of Brooklyn’s championship Atlantic club, Pete O’Brien, lamented that players “don’t play ball nowadays as they used to some eight or ten years ago.” That quote is from 1868.

Yet for all of the talk of its demise, baseball has thrived in recent years by many measures. While it may no longer occupy the singular place in America’s sporting imagination that it did in eras past, it has trended up on an economic level. In 2019, it pulled in $10.7 billion in revenue, breaking a record for the 17th year in a row. This year, according to Forbes, the value of the average MLB team rose 4 percent to $1.85 billion in spite of the ongoing lockdown. The league’s deals with television networks are similarly eye-popping: MLB has a $5.1 billion deal with Fox Sports that runs through 2028 and a $5.6 billion deal with ESPN that runs through 2021. Just last week, it landed a billion-dollar playoff rights deal with Turner Sports.

“Baseball made $2 billion more than the NBA last year,” says Boog Sciambi, one of the lead voices of ESPN’s Wednesday Night Baseball and a longtime play-by-play announcer for the network. “$2 billion! Like, that’s incredible.”

But that doesn’t tell the whole story. The 2019 season marked the low point in the sport’s 12-year skid in ticket sales; 1 million more seats were left empty than the season before. If you want to explain MLB’s attendance ebb, it’s not particularly difficult: “The games are getting longer, the time between pitches is getting longer, and the time between the ball being in play is getting longer,” Sciambi says. “You can’t have all three of those, in my opinion—you’re simply watching for a longer period with nothing happening.” Couple those trends with rising ticket and concession prices, the widespread adoption of yearslong tanking efforts, and restrictive broadcast deals, and it’s clear why there has been a dip.

If the 2020 season is canceled, that attendance dip could grow deeper still. MLB’s last work stoppage came in 1994. Before that year’s strike, average leaguewide attendance was a then-record 31,256. Per The Los Angeles Times, it took a full decade for the average attendance to again surpass 30,000. In 1995, attendance plummeted 20 percent to just over 25,000. So great was the outcry that even president Bill Clinton attempted to step in; player bitterness lingers to this day. “I don’t think, in seven years, baseball’s going to be making $2 billion more than the NBA,” Sciambi says.

It would be difficult to overstate the potential damage of MLB continuing to slide toward an even longer work stoppage now, when many expected it to be the first league to come back. A lost baseball season could do more than just anger and alienate fans; it could cut off the very lifeblood of the sport. “Fans hold grudges,” Friedman says. “Players turn to other sports and give up on their dreams. A generation of baseball fans and players could be hurt.”

“If baseball is to survive as more than a niche sport in the future,” says Lee Lowenfish, a journalist, baseball historian, and author of The Imperfect Diamond: A History of Baseball’s Labor Wars, “I am hoping that there is a baseball season in 2020, [and] we see at least the outline of a long-term basic agreement between the owners and the players.”

For a 2020 season to take place, MLB must address the vital question of how to keep players, coaches, umpires, staff, and their families safe. On this point, at least, the gap between MLB’s proposals and the MLBPA’s counterproposals appear relatively narrow. But just like the situation in the NBA, many players seem unconvinced that the league’s proposed safety protocols—which run the gamut from daily temperature checks and regular testing to a ban on chewing tobacco, spitting, and sunflower seeds—would adequately protect the people involved. The uncertainty is exacerbated by the deteriorating relationship between owners and players; on Monday, Nationals closer Sean Doolittle suggested that the information in an AP report that multiple players and staff members had tested positive for COVID-19 was leaked by the league to influence negotiations.

“This COVID-19 pandemic presents a whole new level of threat to our society in terms of professional baseball and other large-scale professional and amateur sports where the actual playing environment is widely perceived as potentially lethal to fans and players alike,” says Peter Mancuso, a baseball historian who, as the chair of the Society for American Baseball Research’s 19th Century Committee, has studied the sport’s early history in the U.S. “Although the influenza pandemic of 1918–19 did eventually affect attendance in late 1918, it never brought baseball to a universal halt.”

But the present standstill feels primarily engineered by the intransigence of team owners. That came to a head Monday not only because of Manfred’s comments, but because of a report from Bill Shaikin of The Los Angeles Times that “MLB told the MLBPA there would be no 2020 season unless the players waived any legal claims against the league.”

This set off widespread outrage among players. Pirates pitcher Jameson Taillon called the league’s tactics “slimy, tone deaf, greedy, lying, leaking, and overall out of touch.” Blue Jays infielder Travis Shaw tweeted, “Every day somehow continues to get worse. MLB should be embarrassed.” Reds pitcher Trevor Bauer posted a Twitter thread in which he concluded that Manfred and the owners are “holding a losing hand.” And earlier this week, everyone from Trout to Phillies outfielder Bryce Harper to Nationals pitcher Max Scherzer echoed a similar sentiment: Just tell us where and when to start playing. With more and more players speaking out on the negotiations or lack thereof, the well has begun to feel poisoned—and not just among those involved in the talks.

As the sport entered a prolonged hiatus this spring, many teams announced that they would be ending or severely cutting pay to minor league players—a move many interpreted as using the shutdown to justify a pre-pandemic desire to slash already skimpy salaries. Some teams, including the reigning champion Nationals, eventually backtracked, though only after widespread outcry from fans, media, and players in the majors. This came after the league announced it would eliminate a staggering 40 affiliates after 2021—a move MLB tried to explain away as a means of consolidating resources to improve facilities.

In 2018, MLB lobbied Congress to exempt minor leaguers from minimum wage law. After this year’s cut, the players impacted have had to fight for unemployment benefits. Some big leaguers attempted to offset this by pledging portions of their own salaries to minor-league counterparts; pitcher David Price pledged $1,000 to every player in the Dodgers system.

The compounding effect of all this could devastate a sport that’s already struggling to grow. “The minor leagues are the heart and soul of the game,” Friedman says. “Ticket prices are more affordable, families can go to games, creating bonds that last forever. Players are more accessible to kids, creating new fans. Games tend to be played in smaller towns which fuels dreams for kids of being the next big league star.”

Add in the cuts to collegiate baseball programs, and an ever-smaller pool of athletes might consider pursuing baseball. The NCAA, of course, is independent from MLB. But instead of stepping in to fill the chasm, the league has opted to pull back from its own development programs. “Fewer opportunities means fewer players at every level, likely trickling down to youth baseball,” Friedman says.

Future stars could also become disillusioned by seeing the experience of current ones. A prolonged work stoppage would not only limit the earning potential of today’s players, but also curb their ability to leave legacies in the game. Trout, who finished the 2019 season on pace to rewrite much of the record books, could instead see his campaign stopped short. Players could be prevented from reaching milestones like 3,000 hits and 500 home runs. Hall of Fame cases could be ruined. These are no small things in a numbers- and history-obsessed sport like baseball.

“Losing a year of Zack Greinke, for example—well, he could be 37 by the time he plays his next game,” Friedman says. “And Mike Trout losing a year in his prime could make his ridiculous career numbers lose a tiny bit of shine—not to today’s fans, but to history when generations compare players.”

No matter when or how it comes back, baseball faces a difficult future.

“The next several years in the world economy will be shaky,” says Andrew Zimbalist, a professor of economics at Smith College who has analyzed how difficult financial stretches have impacted baseball. “Even with a relatively successful recovery in 2021, there will be lower incomes and pervasive debt that will affect negatively the entire sports industry.”

Hard times for the U.S. economy have unsurprisingly also brought hard times for major sports leagues. Between 1930 and 1933, as the Great Depression descended in earnest, attendance at MLB games dropped 40 percent; player salaries were reduced by an average of 25 percent. In both 1932 and 1933, just two teams managed to turn a profit, and cost-cutting followed across the league: smaller rosters and fewer coaches. The Great Recession coincided with the beginning of MLB’s ongoing attendance decline; that attendance never recovered even after the economy did is a grim marker for the future.

But neither the Great Depression nor the Great Recession ruptured the baseball world like this moment. While the demise of the national pastime has been rumored for years, MLB’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic makes that discussion more relevant than ever. Letting this season fade away would cause irreparable harm to the sport on every level: with fans, spurned by a game that had already lost much of its magic; with players, infuriated by a league they feel has betrayed them even as they volunteer to risk their health to return to the field; and with the future of the sport, now mortgaged for the sake of savings in the present.

Friedman, for one, has a message for owners. “They need to stop playing games,” he says, “and start playing games.”

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