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Here’s why the owners’ lockout puts MLB’s future in peril

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It’s because of how loyalty in baseball — and sports in general — is created.

Douglas DeFelice-USA TODAY Sports

I’ve been thinking about this for a while and before I delve deeper into why I think Major League Baseball (and really, any professional sport) is so different from any other business, credit where it’s due. The germ of the idea for this article came from this tweet:

You’ll pardon the profanity posted above, but Joe Sheehan is exactly right. (Click on the tweet to read the entire quote from Sheehan’s article.)

Think about how you became a Cubs fan. Maybe it was a parent or grandparent or aunt or uncle who took you to Wrigley Field as a child, and you became enchanted with the ballpark and the green grass and the ballplayers, even though the Cubs might not have been very good when that happened. (I’m pretty sure that’s true for almost everyone reading this — the first time you went to a Cubs game, the team wasn’t very good.)

Or maybe you found the TV broadcasts on WGN, whether in Chicago or elsewhere, and Jack Brickhouse or Harry Caray — great salesmen, both — enticed you to keep watching, or to come to the ballpark, even though, again, the team wasn’t good.

And over the years you built a loyalty to the Chicago Cubs, win or lose, and there was lots and lots and lots of “lose.” There have been analogies made by some to a restaurant. If the food’s bad at a restaurant, you’d probably stop going. But for a baseball team, that doesn’t really apply. Sure, you might stop going to games for a time if the team isn’t good, but by the time you’re thinking about that your loyalty is probably imprinted, from childhood, and you’ll still follow the team, watch on TV, even if you don’t spend your dollars on tickets and/or team merchandise. The restaurant, though, if the food continues to be bad... they’re likely out of business.

The baseball team, though, won’t be — no Major League Baseball team has folded in more than a century (the Federal League, which ceased to exist in 1916, though some of its team owners were allowed to purchase MLB teams, including Charlie Weeghman, who bought the Cubs and moved them into the North Side ballpark where they still play). Losing teams will continue to play, as will their winning compatriots, in large part because of that deep loyalty given to you as a child, perhaps from a generation or two prior. You don’t get that with other products. Sure, you might buy the same breakfast cereal you ate as a kid, or use the same toothpaste, or buy the same brand of car, but as Joe Sheehan wrote, you’re not buying a jersey with a grocery store clerk’s name on the back.

No one is begrudging MLB teams making money — I get it, they’re a business, they would like to turn a profit. But it seems to me that over the last couple of decades profit has been prioritized over winning, and thus the situation we find ourselves in.

The sort of loyalty I describe above is what the MLB owners’ lockout is messing with. Team owners already lost a full year of ticket revenue in 2020 due to the pandemic, and overall MLB ticket revenue in 2021 was about 60 percent of what it had been in 2019. So teams have some catching up to do — but there are quite a number of people who, unmoored from that team loyalty to some extent in 2020, have decided there are other things they can do with their money. I personally know some Cubs season ticket holders, extremely loyal fans who attended dozens of games a year, who have said “Enough” and won’t be back. And that’s just anecdotal; there have to be other Cubs fans and fans of the 29 other MLB teams who feel this way.

And now owners have locked players out, and the two sides have spoken once in the six weeks since the lockout began, and that for just one hour on a Zoom call, where it appeared almost no progress had been made to an agreement that would start the 2022 season on time. The clock is ticking and we probably have only about two weeks left before Spring Training could be truncated, and maybe only three or four weeks after that before parts of the regular season would be lopped off.

How many fans are going to tolerate that, and how many are going to say “Enough”? Owners cannot simply assume that fans will just return. The times, and life in general, have changed.

In my view, owners are playing a dangerous game here, and let’s be clear, this is all on ownership. Team owners cannot assume that the loyalty that’s been carefully cultivated over decades will remain if part, or all, of the 2022 season doesn’t happen. I know some people who said they’d “never come back” after the 1994-95 strike, again loyal fans who attended dozens of games a year. At least one hasn’t to this day; another did, but it took 20 years. Attendance was down after that strike ended and only the Sammy Sosa/Mark McGwire home run race in 1998 brought attendance and interest in baseball back to pre-strike levels.

I don’t know what’s going to have to happen to settle this labor dispute and I don’t know how long it’s going to take. What I do know is the longer it takes, the more some truly loyal baseball fans are going to say “Enough,” and team owners ought to take some time to consider the fallout.