The seasons of three of the top four American team sports were thrown into uncertain stasis by the coronavirus pandemic, a stunning turn of events that we’ve been dealing with for 2½ months now. As the weeks have passed and the country has ever-so-tentatively begun to reopen, Major League Baseball, the NHL and the NBA have all waded into the unchartered waters of resuming their seasons.
While it’s not really a competition, as different aspects of those possible plans have drifted into the public sphere, it’s become apparent that the tenor of conversation in baseball has been remarkably different than that of the winter sports. For one thing, more of those baseball talks have played out in the public, with management proposals frequently finding their way into the headlines and players responding to them with often harsh language in both public statements and social media blasts. The end result is at least a perception that basketball and hockey will be ready to go if and when the public health crisis allows, while the incertitudes in baseball only seem to mushroom with each passing week.
The larger context of all of this becomes more complicated seemingly by the day. The health worries stemming from the pandemic were alarming enough, and they haven’t really been assuaged by the passage of time. Those worries were then exacerbated by the kind of economic strife that is all but inevitable to result from such an unprecedented freeze on so many businesses. That problem also has improved little as time has passed. Then last week, our nation fell deeper into crisis after the horrific death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, spurring coast-to-coast protests against systemic racism. Recent days have been filled with troubling violence in the streets and destruction in our neighborhoods.
All of this has served to push questions about sports further to the margin. Obviously, those questions still need to be addressed, even if the larger societal issues mark the growing discord in the MLB discussions almost absurd by comparison. At the same time, we understand we’re talking about a $10 billion-per-year industry, and it’s natural that everyone involved would seek to defend their interests. We also understand that we want baseball to return, and if at all possible, we’d like it to do so in a way that all of us who love the game can celebrate. We’re a little jealous of the smoothness and discretion, by comparison, that seem to have characterized the talks in the winter sports.
That brings us to our central question: What is so different about baseball, as a sport and as an industry, that it seems to have split off onto a path so disparate from the ones followed by the NBA and NHL?
Factor 1: The calendar
This is a simple product of chance, yet is a huge one and looms as an undercurrent to all of the subsequent factors. While the NBA and NHL are losing a lot in terms of momentum, with their season-long playoff races halted just as they were building to the climax of two months of postseason, they at least completed enough of their schedules that starting back up in postseason mode is a viable alternative. Baseball’s season was stopped in its tracks before clubs had even departed their spring training homes.
The calendar also works against baseball in another important way. As indoor sports, environmental and climatic conditions are irrelevant to the NHL and NBA, though the enclosed venues of those sports do give rise to an area of concern regarding coronavirus that doesn’t affect baseball to the same degree. However, baseball is traditionally a six-month marathon in which 162 games sort out the wheat from the chaff, setting up a postseason that runs for just a month, but even so typically finishes barely in time before the onset of autumn renders the prospect playing in some markets hard to pull off.
So baseball has two overarching problems: Playing enough of a regular season to legitimize a playoff bracket, while completing the season in time to avoid World Series snowouts. Of course, playing out the postseason in warm-weather neutral sites is a possibility. But that’s less than ideal for the markets that would lose the chance to host what would be a major civic event. In this way, the calendar serves as an hourglass for baseball’s 2020 hopes in a way that it does not for the winter sports.
Factor 2: Economic structure
Even if the NHL and NBA had not already completed most of their regular seasons before the shutdown, they would still have been farther down the road than MLB in the area of player compensation. Why? The salary cap. The winter sports have one, and baseball does not, depending on how one views MLB’s luxury tax system.
Because salary-cap levels are tied to revenue, negotiations to adjust compensation based on sudden changes in teams’ income are more straightforward. It’s not entirely that simple — salary caps are set before a season, based on the previous season’s revenue — but the labor and management sides in those sports are accustomed to dealing through this paradigm. The NHL’s collective bargaining agreement contains a provision to adjust salaries in the event of a revenue shortfall or because of a force majeure event. The NBA’s CBA contains a similar provision, and with that in mind, players agreed to have 25% of salaries withheld while both sides await the outcome of the pandemic. Players could still receive that money if revenue doesn’t fall as anticipated.
In any event, the seasons in the winter sports were far enough along that salary considerations have been secondary to issues around health and safety, as well as competitive structures. That’s not to say that there won’t be revenue fallout in the winter sports, as money lost this season will factor into future salary-cap calculations and impact near-term cash flow, just to cite a couple of complications. It’s more to say that the labor and management sides in the NHL and NBA appear to have been able to shove those concerns to the side for the time being.
In baseball, not only is compensation divorced from a direct relationship to revenue in the economic structures of the sport, but there is a long-standing ideological revulsion to the concept on the part of the MLB Players Association. That paints any sort of proposal from the owners that bases salary on revenue as taboo, even if it’s a temporary measure put in place because of a historic anomaly. That makes attempts by owners to point to revenue shortfalls as justification for compensation reductions a wee bit more complicated.
Also, to reiterate, baseball is dealing with how to adjust to a full season of lost revenue streams; the NHL and NBA are not. The scale of baseball’s problem is exponentially greater than that of the NHL and NBA.
Factor 3: Nature of league competition
If the NBA and NHL decide to return with postseason play only, while forgoing what was left of their regular seasons, the competitive aspect of their playoffs won’t be materially impacted.
To be sure, the NHL’s announced plan to return with a 24-team postseason hasn’t been universally embraced, but it has been agreed to, giving hockey a path toward resumption. To longtime hockey fans, however, the expanded postseason format might not feel that strange.
Think of it like this: The NHL first expanded to a 16-team format in 1979-80, when the league grew to 21 teams by absorbing part of the defunct WHA. That’s 76.2% of all teams going to the playoffs. As the league has expanded further, the breadth of its playoff structure has not. In fact, once the expansion team in Seattle begins play, the NHL will “only” be sending half its teams to the playoffs. In that context, one year of 24 out of 31 teams (77.4%) is not going to be completely ahistorical. Still, in a sport for which a series can be decided because a puck bounces off someone’s skate, every additional playoff team threatens the legitimacy of the eventual champion.
The NBA really doesn’t have these concerns. If the league were to adopt a short-series format (best-of-three, for example) during the early rounds of an expanded bracket, that might pose a problem. Beyond that, the nature of the competition in the NBA is that you don’t need that many games to sort out whether one team is better than the other. Thus, the better team — with home-court advantage and barring a major injury — wins a best-of-seven series more often than in other sports. If you were to able to seed the NBA accurately according to the true talent level of each team, you could put every team into a playoff bracket, have them all play best-of-seven series and the eventual winner would be a viable champion.
Baseball has none of these advantages. The number of games needed to truly identify the best team in a series is far beyond seven games. Given the random nature of small samples in the sport, every regular-season game you play adds a fraction of credibility to the regular season, and every team you add to the postseason detracts from the legitimacy of the eventual champion. Yet, just like the NHL and NBA, the postseason is the highest revenue-generating portion of the calendar in baseball. Balancing all of this in an under-the-gun negotiation is a high-wire act.
Factor 4: Nature of on-field/court/rink competition
This is the one area in which MLB has the edge on the others. Baseball games are mostly played in open-air venues during warm-weather months, and its players are mostly positioned relatively far apart during game play. (If fans aren’t allowed to attend games, would the Tampa Bay Rays simply play at their minor league complex, which is not enclosed like Tropicana Field?) There are exceptions to the general lack of proximity, and in its initial health-and-safety proposal, the league tried to account for those exceptions. Still, we’ve already seen things proceeding pretty well on baseball diamonds in South Korea and Taiwan.
Stating the obvious, the NBA and NHL are indoor sports, with much more contact and hand-to-hand type of competition. If an infected player gets into one of their games, the risk of spread through the playing of the game is somewhat higher. This is one area that in theory should be less complex for baseball, even though the rosters of big league teams are more expansive than those in the other sports.
One thing that hovers over everything in this article is that it goes without saying that none of these sports will return unless the risk of doing so is low enough that the participants and everyone who comes in contact with them are comfortable. That in itself is a huge topic, but here, we’re treating it as a kind of ipso facto — none of this matters unless the health situation is first stabilized.
Factor 5: Sources of revenue
MLB commissioner Rob Manfred has said that the league derives around 40% of its revenue from attendance and related income streams. That money is spread out over 81 home dates per team, about double the number of home games for NHL and NBA franchises.
Baseball draws more fans per game (28,198 in 2019 as compared to pre-shutdown figures of 17,380 for the NHL and 17,188 for the NBA). Baseball games are less expensive to attend on average than those of the winter sports, but there is no doubt that a major part of its revenue comes from having butts in seats. And again: MLB has zero games in the books for the 2020 season, while the NHL had completed 85% of its regular-season slate and the NBA 79%. Simply put: Baseball has a greater revenue shortfall to address than its counterpart sports, especially in a season that could play out sans fans.
Similar observations can be made about local television revenue. While there is a significant team-to-team disparity in this revenue stream in baseball, much of the sport’s engagement overall is based on regional interest. A similar and perhaps even more stark team-to-team disparity exists in the NBA, but in most markets with a major league presence in both baseball and basketball, MLB comes out ahead in the ratings. Regionally broadcast MLB games have often beaten some of the highest-stakes national broadcasts in the other sports when pitted head-to-head in certain markets.
With all or most of the remaining NBA and NHL games likely to be nationally produced postseason games, it is baseball that has the more dizzying balancing act. It wants to stage enough games to capture the local broadcast revenue that is so precious in the sport. But it pursues that goal knowing that many, if not all, games will be played without fans, a prospect that owners have claimed will lead to them losing $640,000 per game. MLB seeks that balance while also combating the MLBPA’s claims that those projected per-game losses are exaggerated.
However you slice it, baseball’s quest to outline the structure of a delayed season with no games already in the books is far more challenging than the NBA’s and NHL’s puzzles in how to determine a 2019-20 champion.
Factor 6: Minor leagues
Again, it’s timing: The NBA’s G League has evolved into more of a true minor league than ever before, but teams can get by just fine with that circuit shut down until next year. Likewise, the NHL’s fairly expansive minor league system is less essential to the challenge of traversing even an expanded playoff format.
The challenge in baseball is 180 degrees different. Teams used an average of about 55 players to get through the 2019 season, with most clubs shifting players to and from the minor leagues on a near-daily basis. While there wouldn’t be as many games to cover in a shortened 2020 season, pitchers would not be ramped up to full workloads, and players might be unusually susceptible to injuries after a layoff of more than three months and counting. The reported proposal to the MLBPA, which suggests expanding the active roster to 30 players with a taxi squad that will give teams access to an additional 20 players, might suffice.
The problem: How will all of those players stay ready when it’s all but certain that the minor league season will not be played? In essence, baseball will have to set up a whole new roster management system on the fly, an issue with which the NBA and NHL simply do not have to contend.
Factor 7: Timing of CBA expiration
The NBA’s collective bargaining agreement expires after the 2023-24 season, with a possible opt-out one year before that. The NHL’s deal runs through the 2021-22 season, and last fall, the sides began discussions about extending the current agreement beyond that.
MLB’s CBA expires after the 2021 season, and the run-up to those talks has already been acrimonious. That’s driven by a couple of factors. One is the perception that the union got fleeced in the last round of negotiations. The charge is that MLBPA chief Tony Clark favored lifestyle considerations over bigger-ticket items, like an enhancement of baseball’s luxury tax system that has come to at least resemble the kind of formal salary cap that players fear like the boogeyman. When that agreement was followed up by a couple of stagnant free-agent markets, players began to grumble, and Clark began to behave like a man fearing for his job.
On the owners’ side, while the economics from the deal have been good for their group, a lack of cooperation from the players regarding on-field changes Manfred would like to see has added to the rancor. The result is that while the NBA and NHL have been able to compartmentalize their talks, viewing post-pandemic plans as separate from their overall bargaining dialog, the MLBPA and, to a lesser extent, the owners have operated as if any agreement made now regarding the 2020 season will impact the looming negotiations.
That those negotiations were perceived as contentious even before the COVID-19 crisis, and considering that the history between the sides has always been one of acrimony and distrust, there is a multipoint apparatus of pressure on the baseball talks that doesn’t exist in the other sports.
Factor 8: Labor/management relations
The NBA and NHL have had their share of labor problems in the past. The NHL is the only one of the major American team sports to lose an entire season to labor discord. Despite that, the historical relationship between the labor and management sides in baseball is far more rancorous than the other sports. After a long history of owners wielding their systemic advantages like a cudgel, the MLBPA under Marvin Miller — executive director from 1966 to 1982 — gradually grew from modest beginnings into one of the most powerful labor unions in the country, not just in sports. Miller helped accomplish this by fighting the owners on every front, and the owners of his time never hesitated to push back.
Things are different in the NBA, albeit far from perfect. NBA commissioner Adam Silver is widely admired among most of the league’s stars, and the relationship between the union and the league mostly feels like a true partnership. The same can’t really be said about the NHL. For one thing, commissioner Gary Bettman is the same guy who was in charge when the league lost a season 15 years ago. Despite that, Bettman and the union have reportedly been working well in tandem throughout the process of figuring out how to restart their season, culminating in last week’s announcement. In fact, according to the Hockey News, Bettman called relations between the sides “the best he’s seen in his career.”
It’s worth noting that the executive director of the NHLPA is Donald Fehr, who headed up the MLBPA during the labor-related carnage of 1994-95. For that matter, like Silver, Bettman got his start working in the NBA league office under David Stern. Baseball never got the benefit of Stern’s guidance and ability to balance the needs of both the players and the owners. Baseball has always succeeded despite the relations between its talent and its management, not because of them.
Factor 9: Public perception and baseball’s unique place in our culture
The NBA has been viewed as an up-and-coming league for so long that it is sometimes hard to step back and behold the economic behemoth it has become. The sport has become a national entity in a way not dissimilar to the NFL, though its draw is more star-generated than team-generated. Conversely, the NHL has always been a “fourth wheel” in the American team sports hierarchy, with a fan base driven more by local passions than national appeal; the perception of it as a sports product hasn’t really changed much over the decades.
On the other hand, baseball has — usually unfairly — been viewed as a sport in decline, and that creates an additional complicating factor in the already labyrinthine negotiations taking place. When baseball makes missteps, there is more of a tendency for sports fans to pile on than in other sports — or at least that’s how it feels.
Moreso than basketball, and similar to hockey, baseball has evolved into a sport driven more by regional interest than national interest. Whether or not that undercuts baseball’s former moniker of “the national pastime” is a matter of perspective. Long ago, the factor driving baseball’s national appeal and, indeed, the adoption of the national pastime designation was the minor leagues. The majors existed in relatively few cities, and while the Yankees and Red Sox and Giants, among others, all stirred national passions, it was through the expansive minor league universe that the sport reached every crevice of the nation. That dynamic has evolved over time, but as late as last season, the minor leagues remained wildly popular and continued to serve as the entry point to baseball for countless fans in areas of the country without convenient access to a big league club.
As it turns out, the pandemic hit at the very time during which MLB was involved in combative negotiations with the minor leagues on a new Professional Baseball Agreement. For many, those talks have come to be viewed as an assault. That’s been the case since last fall, when plans calling for the loss of affiliation for more than 40 teams were leaked. Those talks have continued in the same vein, even as minor league franchises have fallen into an existential crisis due to the shutdown, with an almost certain-to-be-canceled season leaving clubs with a near-complete loss of revenue.
While big league markets can hope for baseball’s near-term return, all of those markets in between MLB cities cannot. Even as those markets come to terms with that, it’s all unfolding with the distinct possibility that the prosperous minor league system that was in place will return in a very different form — if at all. None of this helps engender sympathy from baseball fans for MLB’s negotiating efforts.
Not that all fans are enamored of the players’ viewpoint in all of this. While it is fair to ask whether it’s productive to choose sides in the negotiations (aren’t we on the side of baseball?), anti-player sentiment is largely driven by a fairly small set of social media eruptions. In the end, even if you do favor one side or the other, it still comes down to a negotiation dominated by money at a time when the general populace has little stomach for sports-related negotiations about money, especially one between rich people.
Baseball officials have talked about the opportunity for its resumption to signify a return to normalcy, as it did in other times of national crisis, such as the world wars and the 2001 terrorist attacks. Instead, the very public negotiations underway between the owners and players, and MLB and the minors, create a perception that only baseball is more concerned with divvying up cash and mitigating loss than helping us all move toward some sort of new normal. Again, fair or not, it just feels like the NBA and NHL simply want to figure out a way to safely finish their seasons. If they do so while MLB remains bogged down in negotiations, it’s going to be a blow to baseball’s place in the sports pecking order. Baseball’s Q rating could end up somewhere south of lacrosse.
Fair or not, that is the cloud looming over baseball’s talks. It’s not a stretch to say that the legacies of both Clark and Manfred hang in the balance as events unfold in the days to come. Baseball had a golden opportunity to aid in our collective healing and, in doing so, remind us all of the kind of cultural impact that our oldest league can have. Alas, unless Clark, Manfred and their respective sides pull a proverbial rabbit out of the hat, that opportunity might already be lost.