Why the future of Major League Baseball is safe regardless of what happens in 2020

Posted: June 5, 2020 in COVID-19, MLB

With the negotiations to salvage a pandemic-altered 2020 season between the owners and players association having seemed hostile and ugly so far, many have debated the possibility of there being no 2020 season and what it would do to the future of the sport. Some on social media have claimed that the damage would be irreparable, relegating the sport to “second tier” status or even outright killing the sport, far worse than the 1994-95 players strike did (before recovering). Both those claims are pretty ridiculous, and there are a lot of reasons why. Let’s dive into them.

  1. The stark differences in 1994 vs now. In 1994, everything was very normal. There were no unusual circumstances that were keeping the tensions between ownership and players away from the spotlight. That certainly isn’t the case here in 2020, with 100K+ Americans dead of COVID-19 and riots and protests for racial injustice going on around the country following the wrongful death of George Floyd at the hands of the Minneapolis Police Department in Minnesota. And this doesn’t even mention the fact that despite some degree of normality slowly starting to come back into our lives in terms of what we can and can’t do because of COVID-19, many people are desperate to get back to work to get the lives of themselves and their families back on the right track. While sports can certainly be a nice distraction from personal or real-world problems and I am most certainly an endorser of this idea – as I discussed on this podcast appearance back in mid-February – the personal and real-world problems stemming from COVID-19 and George Floyd (loved ones affected by the virus itself, financial ruin from the spike in unemployment because of COVID-19, minorities scared for their rights and lives) are so serious that they have pushed sports to the back burner for the time being. This is clearly evidenced by Seattle Seahawks superstar QB Russell Wilson stating that he didn’t even feel like talking about football at the moment due to the serious racial issues going on right now. As much as we love sports, whether or not a baseball season can be salvaged seems insignificant compared to the lives and jobs lost due to the pandemic and George Floyd incident. There will be a time and place where baseball will be welcomed by all and be will be happy to head to the ball park or sit down and watch a game. But for now, real world issues are overwhelming. 
  2. Baseball has always recovered from every public black eye. Major League Baseball had EIGHT work stoppages from 1972-1995 (which suggests that the sport will be fine even if owners and players are somehow dumb enough to have a work stoppage when the CBA expires after 2021 – which won’t happen because after this year nobody will want to lose anymore games or money, plus a canceled season could very well cost Tony Clark his job – and I believe his incompetence as head of the MLBPA is a huge part of the current issue), 2 of them costing the league significant games (1981 and 1994 – which wiped out the entire postseason as well), and three major scandals (Black Sox, cocaine, and PEDs). And guess what? The sport is still here and making record revenues every year. And while some people left after 1994, the sport still had plenty of fans and eventually won some people back a few years later. While many argue that “There’s no McGwire/Sosa to save the day this time”, there’s still Mike Trout and tons of exciting young talent like Aaron Judge, Juan Soto, Ronald Acuna, Jr., Fernando Tatis, Jr., Bo Bichette, Vladimir Guerrero, Jr., Gleyber Torres, and more to excite the younger generation. More on this down below.
  3. Social media is a poor representation of real life. This is something that people need to realize. Not everybody has social media. This is especially true for baseball, which has the oldest fan demographic of any of the four major North American sports. If there was Twitter in 1994, the reactions from some people that you are seeing on that site now probably would have been very similar. Not to mention the people threatening to leave baseball or declaring its death if there is no 2020 season represent such a small part of the picture here. There are many, many more groups of people that won’t have their baseball fandom effected by not having a 2020 season for various reasons. These reasons include, but are not limited to: the aforementioned bigger issues in the world causing people to not have baseball or other sports crossing their minds too often, baseball purists who think that a shortened season without fans in all or most stadiums would be “illegitimate” or “not worth playing” (one of the most underrated aspects in all of this), and the people who believe that sports are “unsafe” to be played and should not be played until a vaccine is developed. Typing emotional responses in the heat of the moment on social media is also not always an accurate feeling of how people actually feel when the time comes around for the new season or even if you simply just look at it after you’ve calmed down and use logic instead of emotion (I myself have been very guilty of doing this in the past, so I speak from personal experiences). Another thing I’ve learned is that social media is full of “haters” who refuse to use real facts, and frequently resort to blocking or ignoring when they are proven wrong. Specifically regarding haters and baseball, it’s been a long-time media myth that baseball is “dying”, yet the sport is still here, as Sports Illustrated addressed this past August. Looking at actual facts, the 2019 MLB postseason did well ratings wise, and many teams did well locally on television in 2019. These haters also seem to be already disconnected from the game, as many of them seem to be old-timers who state their dislike for the analytics and the homer/walk/strikeout style of play. What you see on social media is not what will actually happen. If it was, the National Football League would have empty stadiums every week since the national anthem protests in September 2017, when many angry people took to social media swearing off their teams and the league as a whole. That clearly is not the case, as 27 out of 32 teams sold tickets for at least 90% of the capacity of their stadiums in 2017, 28 out of 32 did so in 2018, and 29 out of 32 did in 2019. 
  4. Were the effects of 1994 as bad as everybody says it was? Sure, league attendance was down 20% as a whole from 1994 to 1995 and television ratings dropped. But what was the context of the big drop? Many of the teams that did the worst attendance wise either were having attendance issues or had a reason for them. Let’s take a look at some of the league’s least attended teams or teams that had a big drop in attendance from 1994 in 1995:

Pittsburgh Pirates – The Pirates, who had gutted their last competitive team just 3 years prior to 1995, finished with the worst record in the National League (58-86) and hadn’t been doing very well attendance wise anyways. The Pirates finished last in the National League in attendance for 4 consecutive years and 5 times in 6 years in the 1980s, and even in their run of three straight NL East titles from 1990-92 never finished higher than 6th in the 12-team National League in attendance.

San Diego Padres  The Padres had sold off the majority of their star players in a fire sale in 1993, finishing last in the National League in attendance in 1993-94 as a result. It also didn’t help the Padres that their football counterparts at the time, the Chargers – who were more popular than the Padres for the majority of their 56-year stint in America’s Finest City anyways – had made a Super Bowl run just months prior to the beginning of the 1995 MLB season.

Minnesota Twins The Twins weren’t too far removed from the 1991 World Series title, but the Twins finished with the worst record in baseball (56-88) in 1995. Considering their 38% drop in attendance from 1994-95 was nearly double the 20% of the league, this is important context that Minnesota possibly skewed the numbers. And this wasn’t in any way a strike-related plummet in attendance either. Attendance records indicate that Minnesota fans have a reputation of being extremely fair-weather supporters of the Twins, as peaks and valleys like this are frequent on their Minnesota attendance records, therefore a major decline in attendance in a short time period would have happened anyways.

Milwaukee Brewers – The Brewers saw a 33.3% decline in attendance from 1994-95, again significantly above the league decline in attendance. This can largely be attributed to Milwaukee finishing a whopping 35 games behind the AL Central champion Cleveland and playing in the aging County Stadium.

Oakland Athletics – Despite winning 4 World Series in that time, the Athletics have frequently struggled attendance wise since they moved to Oakland, finishing in the bottom half of the American League in attendance in 40 of their 52 years in Oakland. Of the 12 times they finished in the top half of the American League, 5 of them came during the Raiders’ stint in Los Angeles when the Athletics were the sole tenants of the Oakland Coliseum, and 4 of them came in years in which the Athletics won at least the American League pennant. The Athletics also saw a 38% decline in attendance from 1990 to 1994, so they were having problems before the strike. The Raiders returned to Oakland prior to the 1995 NFL season, so that coupled with the A’s 67-77 record also contributed to the Athletics’ poor 1995 season attendance wise.

Kansas City Royals – The Royals saw a decline in attendance from 1994-95 that was measurably higher than the MLB average at 27.8%. Team owner David Glass was one of the biggest villains of the player’s strike, as he opposed any agreement that did not include a salary cap and supported the use of replacement players.

San Francisco Giants – The Giants had one of the largest drops in attendance from 1994-95 at 39.3%. It should be noted that the Giants, coming off an exciting pennant chase season of 1993, were just 3.5 games out of first place at the time of the 1994 strike, but finished last in the NL West in 1995, plus their football counterparts in the 49ers were coming off of a Super Bowl victory, turning attention away from a team just coming back from a strike. Given that the Giants have averaged no less than 33,429 fans per game in the 20 season history of Pacific Bell/SBC/AT&T/Oracle Park, even in sub-.500 seasons, it is clear that the age and poor condition of Candlestick Park hurt fan attendance in years the Giants were not competitive. 

Point being, there were reasons for some of the bigger declines and least attended teams that were either unrelated to the strike entirely, or in Kansas City’s case were because of the specific action of an owner, rather than the league as a whole. It is also important to note that while overall attendance and ratings did decline, things did improve as the season went along and anger wore off, as the 1995 World Series is actually the most-watched World Series of the last 25 years.

5. Baseball has what it needed after 1994. It’s widely accepted that what brought baseball back to what it was before the strike was the excitement and fun-loving image of superstar outfielder Ken Griffey, Jr. and the home run chase between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa. Does baseball have something similar if they need it in 2021? Absolutely! Exciting young talent giving such extreme and immediate excitement at such a young age like Cody Bellinger, Juan Soto, Ronald Acuna, Jr., Aaron Judge, Gleyber Torres, Yordan Alvarez, and Fernando Tatis, Jr., among others, can win over the younger generation with flashy play. While he’s obviously not quite prime Griffey Jr.-caliber and has been around longer than the other guys, Francisco Lindor’s smile and fun-loving personality and superstar ability can also aid the cause. The young and marketable players were helping baseball make record revenues the previous couple years, and will again whenever the sport returns to the field.

Conclusion: While it would be naive to suggest that baseball would not lose a measurable proportion of fans if they do not get on the field in 2020, it’s even more naive to suggest it will do any severe long-term damage to the sport. Larger issues in the world have detected attention and passion temporarily away from the sports world, many people will love baseball no matter what, and many claiming anger now won’t follow through when they calm down and the situation normalizes, as the frustration and madness of the current world has probably led to many people being emotional and having a short fuse when it comes to discussing any issue. As mentioned above, social media doomsdayers and extremists do not represent what will happen. In fact, 12 years after baseball was considered “dead” due to the 1994 players strike, baseball had eclipsed their pre-strike average fans attending per game, and they probably would have reached the number soon had it not been for temporary fears on attending events with large crowds following 9/11. And again, unlike 1994, there are real world issues that have led some of even the biggest of baseball fans to not be focused on whether or not the sport will be played in 2020. While of course some people will walk away from the game like they did in 1994-95, many will stay onboard, and just like 1994-95, Major League Baseball will most certainly recover from it and be around for the rest of our lives, even if it will never again be the primary sport in America as it was prior to the 1994 players strike and could even fall behind the National Basketball Association, if it hasn’t already.


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