After a series of so-called negotiations down in Florida, where the players’ union began making concessions and the league just kept submitting the same recycled offers over and over again with minimal tweaks, Rob Manfred made good on his promise and officially cancelled the first two series of the 2022 season. This announcement comes on the back of a 5:00 p.m. deadline on March 1st that he instituted himself.
Just as a reminder, there is no hard-and-fast rule for this deadline to be in place and, should the league feel inclined to do so, they are absolutely free to move the benchmark, as we saw them do on Monday evening. This cancellation is nothing more than a bargaining tactic meant to flex the enormous power of the league in an attempt to bust the union.
I’m going to take off my traditionally analytics focused hat here and talk about this in plain terms from the perspective of a fan who loves this game more than anything else. What the league has done since the start of the offseason — first, waiting 43 days to make an initial offer, then negotiating in bad faith and engaging in a hostile PR campaign to blame the players, and finally cancelling regular season games — has been yet another colossal embarrassment in a long line of colossal embarrassments that characterize Rob Manfred’s tenure as commissioner.
Back in February, Kevin detailed how Major League Baseball squandered an opportunity to be the sole provider of sports entertainment during the first summer of the COVID-19 pandemic and how the tensions of those negotiations helped, in part, to get us to the point we hit yesterday.
Beyond these technical blunders, though, Manfred has long-time fans like myself seriously doubting his commitment to anything beyond making billionaires as much money as he possibly can. Whether it’s the institution of mindbogglingly awful rules like the ghost runner in extra innings and expanded playoffs, controversies like the juiced/deadened balls and the botched crackdown on pitchers using sticky stuff, or optical blunders like calling the World Series trophy a “piece of metal,” Manfred’s seven years as commissioner of the league have been marked by outward scorn from players and fans alike and a healthy share of public ridicule. Yesterday’s cancellation of games is just another failure in a long line of them.
Author’s note: I wouldn’t be doing my job properly if I didn’t pause here to acknowledge that league revenue has steadily risen during his tenure. If that is the only metric needed to be deemed a successful commissioner, then I guess I’m wrong.
In terms of optics, count Manfred’s post-negotiations press conference as yet another one of his very public failures. On top of routinely laughing and making smug jokes after announcing the unnecessary cancellation of games — a decision he apparently regrets, despite having the power to prevent — Manfred claimed that concern for the fans was the league’s number one consideration throughout the bargaining sessions.
“The concerns of our fans are at the very top of our consideration list.” — Rob Manfred, on the day MLB canceled regular-season games, during a league-initiated lockout— Jeff Passan (@JeffPassan) March 1, 2022
This is categorically false. You don’t have to be in the room to know that the only concern the league has is maximizing the size of the owners’ wallets, you just have to be paying attention. If Manfred actually cared about the interests of baseball fans, the season never would’ve been in jeopardy in the first place. I’d need a whole separate article to go through exactly why Manfred’s presser was so terrible — seriously, who is responsible for the league’s comms strategy? — but I’ll leave it there for now.
Despite increases in revenue across the league, buoyed by massive television deals, baseball’s popularity is a little murky right now. In 2021, in-person attendance hit a 37-year low and fell for the fifth straight season. Though this can be partially blamed on pandemic restrictions, it corresponded with a sizeable decrease in home viewership numbers, suggesting that the pandemic wasn’t entirely to blame for depressed attendance figures.
On top of decreased viewership and attendance, MLB has long struggled to make the game appeal to younger generations. Baseball’s average viewership is one of the oldest amongst all professional sports leagues — in fact, the only leagues with an older average viewing age are tennis, golf, and horse racing — with just seven percent of baseball fans under the age of 18. Its struggle to attract young viewers has to be the league’s worst kept secret.
So what do Rob Manfred and Co. choose to do in the face of serious popularity issues and a seeming inability to grow the game with younger generations? Institute a series of broken rules that make no sense, very publicly throw some of the game’s biggest names under the bus (sticky stuff) to distract from a league-wide controversy (the juiced/deadened ball), and, most recently, partake in bad faith “negotiations” while blaming the players for a league-imposed lockout, ultimately resulting in the entirely avoidable cancellation of regular season games for the first time since 1994. I’m sure I’m missing some other public embarrassments that happened along the way, but, frankly, it’s really hard to keep track of them at this point.
Now, all of this is pretty meaningless. If it wasn’t clear before, it should be abundantly clear now: the league does not care about anything aside from the owners’ profits. So, to point out all of the public ridicule the league has received in the last seven years is kind of a moot point, because, despite Manfred’s comments to the contrary, the league is doing just fine from a revenue perspective. What do they care if the league is routinely the target of public criticism and fans start to lose interest in the game? They’ll still make their money. (Just a friendly reminder, though — the last work stoppage was a disaster for the league.)
I’m not a historian and I will never claim to be one, but I am fairly certain that we will look back on Manfred’s tenure as league commissioner as a slap in the face to every fan of this game. This is yet another sad chapter in that tale.
In-person attendance: https://frontofficesports.com/mlb-attendance-hits-37-year-low/
TV viewership: https://sportsnaut.com/mlb-ratings-tv-viewership-numbers/
League demographics: https://www.usatoday.com/story/opinion/2021/04/17/youth-mlb-and-americas-pastime-baseball-day-games-column/7143235002/
TV demographics: https://www.marketwatch.com/story/the-sports-with-the-oldest-and-youngest-tv-audiences-2017-06-30