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MLB owners once again have missed the forest for the trees

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Baseball’s owners failed to see a long-term opportunity beyond the prospect of a short-term loss.

MLB: Winter Meetings Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports

If you haven’t heard, baseball just might be back. After the journey MLB and the MLBPA took to set up a return, however, hardly anyone is rejoicing at the prospect of America’s pastime arriving in late July. The new season comes during a pandemic that threatens its very existence, during a period of national civil unrest that dwarfs sports in importance, and after a long fight between owners and players that has left a bitter taste in every mouth.

Given the amount of money at play, it’s tempting to characterize the struggle over baseball’s return as a “both sides are to blame” kind of thing, or at least it seems to be, if you work in national media. Perhaps there even is blame to go around, if we set aside the fact that ownership has spent the last decade of exploding revenues, hoarding profits, and letting player salary lag, then spent this year attempting to go back on an agreement made in March in order to have players help subsidize potential losses.

Those potential losses are what seemingly have MLB owners scared. The league has refused to pay the players their agreed-upon salaries fully prorated across a half-season or more, as it views contesting that many games at that price to be a too-expensive proposition. In their fear of a possible short-term loss, the owners have forfeited a potential long-term opportunity, a chance to get baseball back in front of a captive audience in a way that leaves the sport in a better position than before.

Should the owners have held to the spring training agreement to pay players their guaranteed salaries in a prorated fashion, they could have brought back baseball in a timely manner to an audience desperate for any kind of live entertainment. More niche sports like NASCAR and PGA golf have provided proof-of-concept, returning in the US to record at-home audiences. Across the pond, European soccer leagues have been playing for weeks to record ratings.

NASCAR has staged multiple races that have seen huge viewership jumps compared to races held at the same time last year. Two weeks ago, a NASCAR race in Martinsville, VA earned a TV rating more than twice as a high as last year’s comparable race. A rain delay threatened a race in Miami, but the delayed start didn’t keep NASCAR from nearly doubling the rating on the previous year’s race.

The PGA Tour has also generated massive viewership leaps. The final round of the Charles Schwab Challenge drew an average of over 3 million viewers, a 50% increase on last year’s tournament. The Match, which pit Tiger Woods and Peyton Manning against Phil Mickelson and Tom Brady, drew an average of 5.8 million viewers, which TNT claimed made it the most-watched golf event in cable TV history.

Noticing a trend? Over in the English Premier League, Sunday’s Merseyside Derby between Liverpool and Everton reportedly drew the largest TV audience in league history. The German league Bundesliga set viewership records in both Germany and the UK. Across the globe, sports that have managed to safely get their players on the field have simply drawn enormous audiences.

Perhaps MLB could have returned to record audiences, only for those audiences to eventually trail off. It’s certainly possible the league would have only made transient gains had it joined the other sports that have managed to safely stage events. Seemingly just as possible, though, is that the league could have genuinely made new fans and cultivated broader long-term interest in the game. If millions of quarantined people would have freshly tuned into baseball just as they have for every other sport that’s played this year, it stands to reason that at least some of them could have been converted, sticking around even as society some day eases back towards normality.

MLB owners should be able to recognize this opportunity. They should be able to see past a possible short-term loss because of the prospect of a future gain (hell, the stock market which they are all surely deeply invested in has managed to do exactly that).

Yet we shouldn’t be surprised that MLB’s owners would be unable or unwilling to see a long-term benefit past a short-term cost. They’ve cut thousands of fans off from affiliated baseball by trimming dozens of minor league teams, a move that will save teams money in the short run but could diminish the sport’s appeal down the road. They’ve stunted current interest in the game by suppressing player salary at every turn, alienating fans with tanking and noncompetitive teams, fans that may or may not ever return.

Of course, there’s a very real chance all of this is rendered moot by the pandemic that’s caused all those skyrocketing TV ratings in the first place. More people are watching sports most likely because more people have little to do while sitting safely at home. Many aren’t sitting safely at home, though, and coronavirus cases are rising in several states across the country. Baseball is wonderful, but it absolutely should not be played if doing so puts thousands of people in danger. As Stephanie Apstein so aptly put it for Sports Illustrated:

Sports are a treat you get when you live in a functioning society. We do not live in a functioning society. We live in a society in which more than 118,000 people have died of COVID-19, the curves are pointed upward … and states are responding by reopening.

We may not get baseball because of a devastating pandemic, and it still seems so far from returning because the owners cannot see beyond the prospect of an immediate potential loss. Growing the game and making it more accessible to more and more people should be healthy for the sport, healthy for the game as a business, and therefore profitable for the people that own the game. The owners have never appeared to prioritize growing the game, and they don’t seem to now.