On Friday, the first official blow to the beginning of the 2022 season was struck, when Major League Baseball officially postponed spring training games through March 5. As the lockout draws on and limited progress is made, it appears that it is a real possibility baseball will not be played on opening day. A second shortened season in three years could be devastating for the future of the game.
Since 2019, viewership has dropped by 12 percent and in-person attendance has declined by 34 percent. With concerns about baseball’s future, rule changes like placing restrictions on the shift and speeding up the pace of games will certainly get proposed. But if Major League Baseball truly wants the future of the game to flourish, Rob Manfred must end the restrictions on watching the game itself.
All Locked Out
The lockout has already had a detrimental effect on the popularity of the league entering this season. A poll from Seton Hall taken indicates that 44 percent of fans will be less interested in baseball after the lockout. Instead of discussions surrounding the free agencies of Carlos Correa, Trevor Story, and Freddie Freeman, news headlines are detailing whether minor leaguers deserve to get paid during spring training. Rather than hype building for Max Scherzer‘s Mets debut or the new middle infield tandem in Texas, players are not allowed to appear in MLB media.
Beyond the harms that the lockout has already caused, delaying the start of the season could cost MLB a unique period to grow the game. The beginning of April is a relatively tame time in the sports world. The NBA and NHL playoffs have not begun yet, the NCAA tournament is coming to an end, and the NFL is in its offseason.
MLB has its own advantages at the start of the season. While the 162-game season can often discourage fans of bad teams from watching later on in the season, every team begins with a clean slate and new hope for the upcoming season. This is also the first time in three years that opening day will contain full capacity crowds, a great way to create lasting memories for young fans.
Current negotiations absolutely play a role in the growth of the game. The anti-tanking measures proposed by the players and expansion of playoffs on the owners’ side could both do more to get fans involved. But the negotiations cannot come at the cost of the season starting on time.
The potential delay to the beginning of the season should provide the impetus for Major League Baseball to reexamine rules regarding blackouts. Under current rules, fans cannot watch their local teams’ baseball games without a cable subscription. MLB’s subscription service, MLB.TV allows fans to watch all baseball games, excluding home games for the team closest to them geographically. This means that fans have no way to watch their favorite team without a cable subscription if they live in the same area as them.
The lack of a cable alternative is particularly concerning as more Americans ditch cable for streaming services. Pew Research finds that the percentage of Americans who watch cable has declined from 76 percent in 2015 to 56 percent in 2021. While MLB has been negotiating a new streaming service specifically for local blackouts, the deal is currently not close to being finalized. Rather than creating a whole new streaming service, removing the restrictions on local blackouts within MLB.TV would be the best for the future of the game. This would certainly require much negotiation with the cable and local TV providers, but ultimately would allow fans to watch their favorite team and the entire league, creating more people invested in the game at-large, rather than just one team. Even if the upfront cost to cable companies is steep, the investment will pay off in the long run as more lifelong baseball fans are built.
While one factor in declining attendance in 2021 is limited capacities and COVID-19 concerns, it certainly is not the only problem. The broader trend indicates that this is the fifth straight year (excluding 2020) of declining attendance and the fact that home viewership was also reduced is evidence that a decrease would have occurred even without capacity restrictions.
A large factor in declining attendance is rising ticket prices. Since 2014, the average ticket price has skyrocketed from $27.93 to $34.21. Simply put, fans are being priced out of the ballpark. Consider the Oakland A’s free game against the Chicago White Sox in 2018. Oakland consistently ranks bottom-five in per-game attendance, and would typically be lucky to get 10,000 fans in the ballpark for a Tuesday night game in April against a below-average White Sox team. For the free game, 200,000 tickets were requested by fans, and attendance reached 46,028. The A’s deemed the game a huge success and pledged to launch another one in future years.
In addition to getting more fans interested in baseball, hosting free games likely improve team revenue. According to an Oracle study, 72 percent of US fans always or usually purchase food at a game, while 76 percent always or usually buy a beverage, spending an average total of $42 per game. In the A’s example, using the Oracle study, 10,000 fans as a baseline for attendance, and the A’s average ticket price from the 2018 season, the excess fans likely spent $1,513,176 more on concessions compared to only $241,300 lost from ticket sales. Additionally, the A’s registered roughly 7,000 to 9,000 new accounts on their website through this promotion, allowing their marketing team to reach out to new baseball fans and get them into the ballpark.
MLB has made some strides in improving the popularity of baseball. Their youth development programs have been able to increase youth participation in baseball After criticism of poor marketing in the past, MLB has drastically improved its marketing strategy through initiatives like “Let the Kids Play” and “Play Loud,” capitalizing on the young and diverse talent the league has to offer.
But, the largest barrier to the growth of baseball is getting people to watch the game itself. Until those restrictions are lifted, nothing will change.
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