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Even if baseball starts up in 2020, teams are going to lose billions

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And other various and sundry notes about the state of Major League Baseball

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Douglas DeFelice-USA TODAY Sports

When Major League Baseball returns — be it in 2020 or later — it is going to look different than it did up to now. This, I think we all know.

Currently, there is a plan being discussed — and make no mistake, these are only discussions, not any specific plan — where a “Spring Training 2.0” could start next month and games could happen in July. Ken Rosenthal has details in The Athletic, noting that the Cleveland Indians actually told their personnel about it:

Indians officials, on a Zoom call that included about 70 members of the organization, estimated the season would begin after a three-week ramp-up, putting the start of Spring Training 2.0 around June 10, another date Plouffe specified. But the officials made it clear the dates were mere targets, fully expected to change. They simply wanted players to be prepared if the league meets all of the logistical challenges necessary to play.

Which still is no sure thing.

Rosenthal is right. It’s no sure thing. And beyond the uncertainty over when — or even if — we have a 2020 season, this article by Dave Sheinin in the Washington Post quotes several baseball officials and economists who are well-versed in the economics of the sport on the effect that the shutdown has had, and will have, on baseball.

This doesn’t sound good:

“We’re going to lose billions of dollars this year, no matter what,” said one high-ranking baseball official, who, like others interviewed for this story, spoke on the condition of anonymity to freely discuss internal matters. “People don’t realize the magnitude of the losses, but they’re huge.”

The Cubs, for example — and mind you, this is just an estimate — have already likely lost about $60 million for games that have been cancelled (30 home games through the end of May). This is an estimate based on the approximate average ticket price of $52, for 30 games, using last year’s attendance average of 38,208. Granted, some games in April and May 2020 would likely have drawn less than that, and many Cubs season-ticket holders (myself included) are taking credits rather than refunds. But this gives you an idea of how much revenue the Cubs could be losing.

Then there’s the issue that still would have to be resolved about pay for the players for any season that does happen in 2020. Team owners and the MLB Players Association came to an agreement in March that will give players a total of $170 million if there’s no season at all. That comes to about four percent of total estimated player salaries for 2020. The MLBPA contends that the March agreement means that players will be paid their full salaries if any games are played in 2020. Owners, as you might imagine, are saying that any player salaries would have to be pro-rated depending on the length of the season. This is a dispute that would have to lead to another agreement before any play begins.

One baseball economist agrees:

“For the average team, about 50 percent of revenue is stadium-based, from ticket sales, parking, concessions, sponsorships, signage. It would only make sense for teams to play games if they can reach a subsequent deal with the players’ association to supplement the deal they made [in March],” said Andrew Zimbalist, an author and professor of economics at Smith College. “[MLB owners] would have to get the players’ association to agree to some formula at least close to that reality. If they didn’t, they would lose a lot of money.”

Andrew Zimbalist has written numerous books about baseball economics. “Baseball and Billions” was written in 1994, but it’s still relevant to today’s game. And Zimbalist is right — there’s likely no baseball in 2020 without owners and players coming to some sort of agreement on salaries. As I noted in my Tuesday article on the current baseball situation, MLBPA chief Tony Clark says no proposal for a 2020 season has even been presented to the players yet.

Beyond the economic discussion, there’s always the chance that flare-ups of the novel coronavirus pandemic could lead to further shutdowns of various parts of North America and make playing sports — even in empty ballparks — impossible in 2020.

Two more quotes from the WaPo and Athletic articles sum up where we stand. From The Athletic:

“If everyone is expecting baseball to look like and feel like and be the way it’s been over the past 10 years, it’s going to be really hard to get through the season,” one executive said. “If teams and players are willing to be flexible and adaptive, that gives us the best chance to get through.

“We have to be prepared for postponed and canceled games, and not have the expectation we’re going to get every single game in. Hopefully that doesn’t happen. Hopefully we get back playing and it’s smooth sailing to play the way we expect. But hope isn’t a good plan.

“The reality is, we don’t know what’s going to happen over the next five months. I would guess there are things that aren’t going to go the way we planned. Our ability to adapt is going to be really important.”

From the WaPo, quoting Andrew Zimbalist again:

“There’s every incentive in the world for [MLB] to make an agreement with the players’ association and have baseball this year,” Zimbalist said. “It would be tremendous for MLB, not only because the game would be up and running again, but more significantly [to be able to say] to America, ‘Hey, we know you’re suffering, but we’re going to bend over backwards to get the sport up and running.’ That’s really good PR for baseball.”

The alternative — the return of baseball, after being cleared by governmental and public health officials, being scuttled by another financial squabble between owners and players — would be “devastating,” Zimbalist said.

“If that happens, everyone says, ‘Oh, same old baseball.’ And they turn away, repulsed,” he said. “I don’t think there’s an intermediate option between those alternatives. And the stakes are enormous.”

Both quotes are correct. The stakes are very high for baseball no matter what they do. And no matter what happens, baseball is going to look very different this year — and beyond 2020, too.

Poll

Regarding Major League Baseball in 2020...

This poll is closed

  • 27%
    A season will start around July 1
    (144 votes)
  • 16%
    A season will start between mid-July and mid-August
    (89 votes)
  • 7%
    Some sort of tournament will happen, starting after mid-August
    (40 votes)
  • 47%
    There won’t be a 2020 season — see you again in 2021
    (252 votes)
  • 1%
    Something else (leave in comments)
    (6 votes)
531 votes total Vote Now