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Why you should care that the players are fighting for money

It matters.

Kansas City Royals outfielder Alex Gordon autographs the back of a jersey for a fan during spring training on February 18, 2019, in Surprise, Ariz.
Kansas City Royals outfielder Alex Gordon autographs the back of a jersey for a fan during spring training on February 18, 2019, in Surprise, Ariz.
John Sleezer/The Kansas City Star/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

Why should I care? Why should I care whether the baseball players who make much more than I do get a little more money?

Over and over and over again, this is the refrain that many fans sing, the song that they can’t get out of their heads. As an editor for a baseball website that receives millions of pageviews every year, I hear this tune more than most. Now that the 2022 MLB season has been delayed because the Major League Baseball Player’s Association and the league—IE, the 30 MLB owners—can’t reach a new Collective Bargaining Agreement, the song is louder than ever.

How long will this season be delayed? Who knows, really. Will we see baseball this year? Who knows, really. The calculus is different than it has been for the last few months, because each new day that an agreement is not reached results in one fewer game that will be played. That is different. Maybe it spurs some action. Again: who knows, really.

What we do know, however, is why we are here. It is unnecessary to go into the specifics of the CBA because what has happened is simple: league revenue continues to rise while payroll has stopped growing. It’s really that simple, it’s been a trend that’s been developing for almost two decades.

The owners, naturally, like this. Are making more and more money, their assets growing ever greater in value. The players, naturally, do not like this. They want to claw back some of what they’ve lost and ensure their slice of the pie does not keep diminishing. In 2019, the last full season of baseball with published revenue figures, the player share of the total revenue pie was 40.7%. This is in stark contrast to the owner/player revenue split in both the NBA and NFL, where players receive, at minimum, every year, 48% of league revenues. This discrepancy between what professional baseball players make and what their colleagues make is inarguably the core issue from which all the details spring.

Bet here comes the refrain again: why should I care? Why should I care if the players get 40%, or 45%, or 50% of league revenues? It won’t change anything, will it? Yes, owners are enormously, absurdly wealthy, but the median career earnings for MLB players nowadays is a little over $6 million. So what if that figure shrinks to $4 million or grows to $8 million? It’s more than you or I will likely earn from our jobs in our entire careers. Just get playing already.

Why should I care that the players are fighting for money?

You should care, in part, because baseball, like many industries, is built upon the back of severely underpaid labor. The ratio of wealthy baseball players to baseball players making poverty wages over the course of their careers is, shall we say, less than ideal. There are a lot of numbers I could state that illuminate just how much financial strain most minor league players are under, and I could quote the surprisingly high percentage of “big league ballplayers” who earn less than a million dollars in their careers. Unfortunately, it’s my observation that many people lack the basic empathy required to process them. I can’t make you care about other people; you’ll have to do that yourself.

Fortunately for those of you who don’t want to exhibit empathy, there’s a way for you to channel pure selfishness for wanting baseball into supporting the players here. And that’s because the players are the game of baseball, as Jeff Passan noted so eloquently earlier in the week. And a storm is coming for the game of baseball, if it is not overhead.

After the last MLB work stoppage in 1994, interest in the sport cratered. Attendance dropped by 20%, and it wasn’t until 2008 that attendance finally surpassed the 1994 peak.

It is...not the same now. While revenues have remained strong and continue to rise, attendance has continued to decline from its 2008 peak. Additionally, there are a lot more entertainment options than there were in 1994. We have more streaming services and television shows than we know what to do with, we can rent a movie from the couch, and gaming has gone from being a “toy” to a behemoth of an industry—and not to mention that games got cancelled in 2020. People are used to the absence of baseball.

The older fans will probably stick around. But the absence of baseball and the pure animosity of these negotiations is a toxic combination. Younger fans have so many other entertainment options, and even some established fans got through 2020 and thought to themselves, “hey, I didn’t mind having all this extra time to myself.”

When you take your kid to a baseball game, you do not take him to see John Sherman waving from his luxury box. You do not go to Yankees Stadium to try to spot a Steinbrenner on a concourse.

No. You go to a baseball game to watch immensely talented players who have worked harder than you or I have at anything. You go to make memories, to root for a perfect game when the pitcher is cruising in the fifth inning, to catch a foul ball, to buy an overpriced hot dog and a souvenir cup drink with the season’s schedule etched on its side, to witness the closest thing to magic that there is in this world when there’s an improbable walkoff finish— as you high five strangers and soak up the sound of wild cheering into your bones. All this because of the players, the names you’ll remember, the names your kids and grandkids will remember.

The owners? The owners are nobodies. To own an MLB team, you need to have cash and connections. There’s no bar for talent, no bar for business acumen, no bar for passion, no bar for love of the game. Some of them undoubtedly care deeply about baseball. But so do you, dear reader, and so do I. There are millions of Americans who could be excellent MLB owners if they only had the money. The owners are replaceable.

Running a baseball team takes money. The owners assuredly deserve their fair cut of the revenue. But if the players say their cut isn’t fair, and every shred of evidence backs it up, but you simply want them to shut up and get on the field? Well, it sure seems that you’re not a fan of baseball at all.