Why both sides of MLB work stoppage should not take fans for granted

In the labour battle between Major League Baseball’s owners and players, the negotiating parties should be careful not to take the fans for granted. (Ted S. Warren/AP)

In the labour battle between Major League Baseball’s owners and players, the negotiating parties should be careful not to take the fans for granted.

The negotiations on the new version of the collective bargaining agreement will undoubtedly lead to both sides focusing inward on their own strategic positions, and outward towards extracting the most concessions that they can from those on the other side of the table. ‘Twas ever thus.

What is profoundly disappointing, though, is to see the manner in which the expiration of the previous agreement was viewed less as a deadline than a starting line for talks to commence in earnest. In the initial statements from MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred upon locking out the players, there seemed to be a lack of urgency portrayed in part because this is the off-season, and regular season games are not yet in peril of being cancelled.

Fans have come to expect baseball’s current commissioner to often say the wrong thing about the game they love. From referring to the World Series trophy -- the “Commissioner’s Trophy”, for crying out loud -- as a “piece of metal” to his ongoing comments disparaging the game as context for instituting new rules, Manfred seems often to regard the game as an intellectual exercise and allows his willingness to unleash a rhetorical bon mot to outpace his role as a trustee of the sport.

It’s important for Manfred, the owners he represents and the players to fully appreciate the degree to which the world has changed since previous CBA negotiations. In 1994, when baseball last saw a work stoppage, baseball held a far greater position on the North American sporting scene, and in a mostly analog and linear media environment that moved at a fraction of the pace of today.

There are no games being cancelled -- not yet, anyways -- but by now, any serious sports league in the world recognizes that theirs is a 12-month enterprise. The games themselves are the attraction, but the off-seasons are where the essential resources of hope and optimism are replenished amongst their key constituents, the fans who pay for tickets and cable fees and online subscriptions, and whose interest catalyzes the dollars that flow through sponsors and advertisers and corporate partners.

By shutting down any positive discussion of the game for the foreseeable future, MLB is doing worse than simply ceding much of their profile and their ability to generate positive momentum. They are actively damaging their own product.

One need only look at MLB’s own media properties to see the damage that they seem fully willing to inflict on themselves for the sake of torquing up their leverage in the current negotiations. While Manfred and the owners certainly understand dollars and cents, they seem to not recognize how reputational capital is just as hard to accrue, and exceedingly easy to spend. For the amount of time, money and energy that went into building MLB’s digital properties as dependable information hubs with exceptional talent and credible independence, their willingness to effectively plan to vandalize those sites and channels as part of their negotiation process demonstrates a lack of appreciation for the greater price they could pay for pushing their negotiations this far over the brink.

It’s possible that all involved have taken for granted that fans will return whenever and however these negotiations conclude. Certainly, some baseball fans will be eager to reengage once the sport ceases this round of self-sabotage, and a flurry of signings and trades will provide ample reason for renewed enthusiasm.

But it’s important to make the distinction between the sport of baseball and the business of MLB. Aficionados of the game may be happy to see it return, but how eager will they be to part with increasingly hard-earned dollars for MLB products, especially as everything else within the consumer price index gets more expensive. It’s possible to be passionate about your team, but more frugal in how you support them.

Fans came back after the 1994 players’ strike, but the cost of that stoppage continues to resonate to this day. The collapse of fan support in Montreal cost the league a significant -- and culturally and linguistically distinct -- market, while the annual Hall of Fame discussions continue to draw out the damage caused by the leaders of the business of baseball looking the other way through an era of ruthlessly dubious ethics in the sport.

What’s more, MLB ceded ground to other sports over the ensuing time, as many fans who would otherwise have been baseball-first consumers found other leagues and teams in which to invest their time, money and devotion. And in 2022, those fans won’t only have the other North American sports leagues to draw their valuable interest. The emergence of global sports interests like the multitude of premier-level soccer leagues and competitions, e-sports and a renewed and growing enthusiasm for Formula 1 car racing provides ample competition for the hearts and eyeballs of this generation of baseball fans, and the generation to come.

With the holidays coming, the six weeks between now and when spring training is impacted by the lockout will pass quickly. The negotiating parties should fully appreciate that they are already past their deadline, and the longer that the league remains in its current state of decaying dormancy, the greater the damage they do to the business they claim to want to preserve.

Because in the end, even the suits and lawyers and business-school grads around the negotiating table should understand that eroding your customers’ passion for your product is no way to build a sustainable industry.

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