The Super Bowl is today. Yes, you’re still reading our baseball site. Don’t worry. What I mean by pointing out that the Super Bowl is today is that once the final pass is thrown and the last knee is taken, we’ll be in the nascent hours of baseball season. Pitchers and catchers are just around the corner. Baseball will be upon us, and with it will come all of the complications that baseball seems to revel in.
What are those complications, though? That depends on who you ask.
Let’s ask Rob Manfred. As the league’s commissioner, Manfred has been good at keeping busy. When he’s not getting into blistering PR wars with Minor League Baseball, Manfred enjoys futzing around with the game’s rules and begrudgingly telling the owners he works for to stop acting out. A three batter minimum here, a little allowing Jim Crane to look like the good guy there. When he’s feeling particularly frisky, he might even set up a recurring series of games in London at a venue that makes Coors Field look like a pitcher’s paradise. It’s hard work but someone’s got to do it. And hey, baseball just enjoyed record revenues! By what the owners judge to be the most important metric of all, the bottom line, he’s doing his job.
What Manfred doesn’t seem particularly interested in is the actual main issue plaguing the sport. The institution of baseball doesn’t seem to be all that interested in the game of baseball. The league and the owners care much more about short-term profit than they do about the health of the game. That may feel like a harsh claim, but there are increasingly fewer reasons to feel otherwise.
One of the more common accusations that fans throw at Manfred is that he doesn’t actually like baseball. Why else would he be so fixated on finding new rules to shave off a few minutes of time from his games? I’m not here to make a blanket determination about whether or not the commissioner likes the game he presides over, but let’s use Occam’s razor here. Manfred’s job is to maximize baseball’s profitability, and wouldn’t be ramming these changes through if he didn’t think that they would help do so. This is also why he’s been particularly passionate about the whole let’s-gut-the-minor-leagues thing, why games are being played in London and Mexico, why the World Baseball Classic has been a priority, and so on.
Some of those things, like the WBC, are objectively cool. Others like Jeff Lunhow’s proposed McKinseying of the minors are gross and wrapped in ridiculous lies. MLB claims that the only way to pay minor leaguers a fair wage is to eliminate teams, rather than having big league owners reach into their unfathomably deep pockets. This is, of course, absurd.
Additionally, while baseball is seeing record revenues, it’s also seeing attendance drop for the fourth straight year. The culprits there are the higher prices (between tickets, parking, concessions, etc.) of going to game combined with the abundance of teams that aren’t even trying to field highly competitive rosters means that fans aren’t as inclined to show up as they once were. Why pay ridiculous prices to take the kids to a ballgame when at least one of the teams involved is probably not serious about winning? Why buy season tickets to your hometown team when they’re more fixated on payroll flexibility than the win column?
Naturally, Manfred’s calculus seems to have taken all of that into effect, because business is booming. You can chalk that up to TV deals, MLBAM’s various business ventures, and the fact that the in-stadium experience is more tailored to the folks sitting behind home plate and in the luxury boxes than ever before. Baseball isn’t an in-person sort of experience for the working class anymore, and that’s not going to change anytime soon. The owners are getting ridiculously rich off of this business model.
But what does this mean for baseball in the long run? In Manfred’s grand plan, baseball is:
- Less accessible in person to many kids because a number of minor league teams will be cut and going to a big league game is too expensive
- Unwieldy and awkward because of time-saving rules that may actually make the game longer
- Full of organizations that would much rather play at the bottom of the standings or build mediocre 84-win teams that might accidentally find their way into the playoffs instead of spending to add good players
- Well aware of the fact that players will go unpunished for participating in intricate cheating schemes, if the fallout of the Astros scandal taught us anything
- Full of increasingly vocal players who are unsatisfied with the state of labor-management relations
- Played with a ball that behaves in completely unpredictable ways that the league laughably denies
Let’s also throw in that playing baseball at a high level as a kid is prohibitively expensive because of the cost of equipment and joining travel teams, which means that playing baseball isn’t an option for far too many. Should I also mention that although it’s been getting better, baseball still has a problem with players having a personality, and that the sport is still overwhelmingly white?
Sure, baseball is rolling in cash right now. But this really a sustainable way of operating? Is pricing people out of the game while their favorite teams make half-hearted efforts at contention really good for the sport in the long run?
I’m not naive enough to not understand that baseball is a business, and that short-term profit will always be an object of desire for older businessmen who view the teams they own as investments to be bought and sold. Yet as the commissioner, Manfred can and should care about the long-term viability of the sport he’s in charge of.
The problems that Manfred claims to be solving aren’t really problems. They’re examples of his philosophy, and that philosophy itself might just be the real issue. It’s no wonder that football and basketball are running circles around baseball when it comes to generating interest in young fans.
Enjoy the Super Bowl!