Fans Are Shut Out Again

Let me stipulate that this is not the most important issue facing the world right now.

That would be what’s going on in Ukraine, but you have a thousand options for commentary on that, and I don’t have anything fresh to say after my earlier post on the subject. This is a humanitarian disaster brought on by a war criminal who is only tangentially involved with reality. And yet, it has served the purpose of jarring the West into a recognition of its purpose in history: to protect and advance classical liberal values.

Baseball’s purpose in the world is to entertain its fans. However, there is no evidence that the game’s owners and players have been reminded of that reality. They go on as if we don’t exist.

For those of you who have wasted your time being concerned about whether we might be facing nuclear war, or for those who just don’t care about baseball anymore (and why would you?), let me bring you up to speed. Mercifully quickly.

As a baseball fan, this is how I feel. Photo by Alvaro Espinosa on Pexels.com

The agreement between the owners and players expired late last year and the owners locked the players out. Spring training was delayed. The millionaires argued with the billionaires about arcane details of their contract. Yesterday, they reached an agreement. Opening Day will be delayed a week, but they’ll get in all 162 games. It wasn’t in any of the press reports, but expect the cost of parking, hot dogs and beer to go up. Somebody’s gotta pay these guys.

And that’s it in a peanut shell. I’ll spare you all the details, but suffice it to say there’s not a thing in that agreement for the fans. Focused as they were on their own pieces of the pie that the fans bake for them, they forgot to address any of the fundamental problems that plague the game.

Baseball has had an eroding fan base for decades. The basic problem is that the games are just too damn slow. The average length of a game last season was three hours and 11 minutes. Fifty years ago, in 1971, it was two hours and 29 minutes. If you watch or listen to all 162 games — and I listen to most of them — that would add 113 hours to time devoted to the game. Some of us have other things to do with our lives. Not me, but many of you.

And, guess what? Attendance is down. From a high of 79.5 million in 2007, total attendance was down to 68.5 million by 2019, the last comparable year, thanks to COVID. The average game was 16 minutes shorter in 2007.

And that’s not all. In 2003, World Series games drew 25.5 million TV viewers. Last year it was down to 11.75 million. And that’s not because of COVID and it has little to do with the teams in the Series. It continues a long-term trend.

To add insult to injury, the agreement does away with two COVID innovations that may have shortened games a little. Double-headers were seven inning games and extra innings started with a runner on second base. Both rules are gone now.

One change that will likely make the game less fun for fans is the loosening in the luxury tax. This acts as a stand-in for a salary cap, which other pro sports have but which the MLB players resist. Basically, when a team’s payroll gets too big it has to pay into the league, which acts as a break on salaries. It acts as a way of keeping teams more competitive rather than having the big market clubs win every year. Even as things stand now, the average market size for a World Series champion over the last two decades has been 10th largest, out of 30 teams. All things being equal, you’d expect that to be closer to 15th, so that’s a fair indication that team wealth helps buy championships. This will make it worse.

Not directly related to the length of games, the agreement also does the unthinkable. It expands the awful designated hitter rule to the National League. This is unpopular with people who love the sport and pay the bills, but it was something both the players and the owners wanted. The owners wanted it because it produces more runs (as if the only thing fans want to see is more offense) and the players like it because it extends careers. If the NL had the DH I suppose Ryan Braun might have played another year for the Brewers. (And, by the way, the DH produces only marginally more runs. AL teams average 4.59 runs per game versus 4.46 for the NL clubs.)

The DH has no effect on the length of games. There was only a three second difference between games payed in the American and National Leagues.

One of the things that may have contributed to owners and players not giving a damn about the fans (over and above the fact that they just don’t give a damn about the fans) is gambling revenue. Professional sports, which used to staunchly oppose gambling (see Rose, Pete) is now all in. Why? Because it prints money for them. MLB may reap $1.1 billion from legal online betting. So, essentially, they’ve found a new way to exploit the fans, providing yet another cash cushion shielding them from the desires of their most loyal customers. And, never mind what this does to families struggling with a gambling addiction.

So, if the average fan who just loves baseball doesn’t show up for the games or tunes out early (or, more likely, tunes in late), who cares? You’ve more than made up for it with gambling.

And, yet, I have my own addiction problem. I just like baseball. I’ll grumble about it, I’ll cringe every time the DH comes up to bat for the Brewers, but I’ll listen to Uecker. I’ll probably go to a few games at American Family Field (and that’s another damn thing!).

Play #!))$!$$$ing ball.

Postscript: To add even deeper insult to more profound injury, according to a story in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the Brewers have the gall to be gearing up right now to demand even more money from taxpayers for their stadium. Sometime soon the club will issue their own report detailing improvements they want to AmFam Field and, no doubt, threatening to leave town if taxpayers don’t pony up.

Published by dave cieslewicz

Madison/Upper Peninsula based writer. Mayor of Madison, WI from 2003 to 2011.

4 thoughts on “Fans Are Shut Out Again

  1. Nice quantitative analysis, although not much info on what the actual points of contention are.

    But more important, here’s an easy tie breaker. Award 1/4 point for each player left on base at the end of an overtime inning. Or better yet, 1/10 of a point for first base, 2/10 for second, and 3/10 for third. This must have been discussed at some point; I’m just not aware of it. The shift in strategy to trying to get players on base instead of just trying to hit home runs would be interesting, too. Heck, you could score the whole game that way. Fans would have more reason to watch all those scoreless innings. It would shift more attention to inside the park. I realize this comment will be about as popular as a carbon tax.

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  2. I agree with all of your points regarding the owners vs the players, but I must jump in regarding some of the rule changes that have either been seriously proposed or actually adopted in the last year or so. I grasp that virtually all of these changes are meant to shorten games in the hope of attracting (or getting back) the casual fans who have been abandoning the sport in droves. Yeah, but I hate ’em all. 7 inning doubleheader games? Requiring relievers to pitch to at least three batters? And, most egregious of all, the runner on 2nd base to start extra innings? To my mind, these ALL mess with the basic character of the game. Having said that, perhaps incongruously, I’m a big fan of the DH. In that, I agree with Ted Williams in “My Turn At Bat.”

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