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Baseball is doubling down on pandemic-induced harm

Nobody wants to think about the health of the game beyond 2021, and I wish they’d all just say that.

Baseball Bundesliga player Simon Bäumer Photo by Jens Büttner/picture alliance via Getty Images

Pay careful attention to the headline of this piece. MLB is hurting the game, but so is the player’s association. The two entities charged with safeguarding our favorite sport are letting us down, and a short-sighted approach to the sport is going to hurt it more than any COVID-19 case.

The league and union are both trying to figure out what the season is going to look like, how many games will be played, and how many teams will make the playoffs. These are all crucial to the 2021 campaign, but there’s a bigger issue at play here. Last season was pandemic-shortened, it’s unlikely that the league will make it through 162 games without regional restrictions this year, and next season is in doubt due to a whole lot of animosity ahead of the CBA expiration.

Three straight abbreviated seasons would do irreparable damage to the sport, yet this seems to be something both sides are either ignorant of or tacitly endorsing with terrible offers and lack of actual counters. Both sides are acting in their own short-term interest, to be sure, but by framing this entire confrontation around “winning” 2021, the health of the sport is in question.

For ownership, it’s not surprising they want to see fewer games. Revenue has become more and more decoupled from attendance — 2019 saw only 29 percent of league revenues coming from ticket sales, and some estimates run that all the way down to 17 percent — and indeed even competitive standing, as TV money — which only relies on advertising for about 10 percent of revenue — and a more diversified portfolio mean ownership doesn’t need 162 games of competitive product. Teams these days largely operate as real estate holdcos, using their valuations to secure loans and buy property.

Since 162 games of competitive on field action is no longer a prerequisite for a successful financial endeavor, owners can focus on playoff revenue, where per-game TV income is higher, and by expanding playoffs, more owners receive the benefits of more playoff games. A system where more teams make the playoffs, and more playoff games exist, waters down the grind of a 162 game season, so it’s no surprise that ownership doesn’t really care about how long the regular season lasts in the future.

So we have one side that continually sees its interests misaligned with the nature of the sport. On the other, the player’s association has long put the interests of veterans ahead of young talent, prioritizing free agent deals instead of better arbitration systems and any tangible support for minor leaguers. This perpetual focus on maximizing this year’s free agent class has left the union exposed to larger structural issues, like ownership treating a CBT as a hard cap already.

These economic conditions were always going to threaten the long-term health of the sport. COVID-19 has merely accelerated the degrading conditions, the same as it has done in so many other areas of our world. The threats to the game are real and present, and squabbling over a universal DH or 150 games in 2021 just push off the real, difficult agreements that need to be made to further and further away.