American baseball’s tense labor negotiations are striking out. Major League Baseball and its players’ union are at loggerheads over salaries and the length of the season already cut roughly in half by the coronavirus. The union has now left the negotiating table, daring the league to force a restart. The damage to the sport may already be done.
The parties have been publicly squabbling for weeks. The league is worried about running into a second wave of Covid-19 and having to cancel the lucrative postseason playoffs, so it’s asking for fewer games. It’s also asking for salary cuts beyond the prorated reductions agreed in March now that it’s clear the bleachers will be empty. Players – who, in fairness, are the ones taking the health risk – have balked at billionaire owners asking them to shoulder more pain.
The spat isn’t helping baseball’s already bruised image. A cheating scandal recently tainted the Houston Astros, last year’s World Series runners-up. And with over 20 million Americans unemployed, it’s tough to sympathize with, say, Mike Trout, the Los Angeles Angels’ star who can pull in almost $38 million a year. Most players make far less, but the average is still over $4 million.
And the sport’s popularity was already on the wane. Total attendance has been falling since 2012. Television viewership is up, but an average regular season professional football game still pulls in almost seven times the viewers of the typical MLB game broadcast on Fox and around 20% more than a World Series game. While over 90% of Americans have heard of basketball phenom LeBron James, under 45% are familiar with Trout, according to a YouGov poll.
Unlike the sluggers, professional basketball and hockey wrapped up restart deals fairly quickly. Some basketball players have since expressed reservations about their plan, especially after nationwide protests against racism and police brutality began. But taking a stand over injustice is different from fighting over money.
Baseball’s labor disputes have backfired in the past. The players’ strike that began in 1994 was so unpopular that it took about a decade for average attendance to recover. The owners shared the blame then, as now. But the union could have conceded more ground. Holding out for a short-term win could be a long-term mistake.