With Lockout looming, what does it mean for baseball? - Part 1
Since the calendar year 2011, the sports world has endured many opticals in it's way when it has come to fights between owners and players unions around and let's not forget a global pandemic.
In the 2011 the NFL had it's Lockout where virtually the entire offseason was paused due to a labor dispute between the NFL Owners and Players Association. Thankfully for football fans, no actual games were cancelled. If you count the Pro Football Hall of Fame Game as a cancelled game then yes you would be right as it was the only canceled game. But teams still played the (at the time) traditional four pre-season games and then into the 16-game slate. However the NFL Lockout lasted a total of 132 days. Fast forward one year, the NFL was dealing a referee lockout where the actual NFL officials couldn't come to agreement and the league instituted replacement officials for games. Even though no games were missed, it did affect the outcome of games. The last straw was the extremely controversial touchdown for the Seahawks on Monday Football against the Packers where one official signaled touchdown and the other signaled an interception. The replay showed the Packers got the pick, however the officials settled on the touchdown and the game was over. After that fiasco, it was Week 4 when the actual officials returned and the quality of the games returned as it was being called properly. Debate that all you want. The NFL referee lockout lasted three months. Again, no actual games were missed but the quality of the game was an ugly site to see.
The NBA had their own lockout in 2011 where the start of the 2011-2012 season was delayed to a lockout. The CBA expired and the Owners and Players Association were at odds. With the NBA season typically ending in mid-June and starting up around mid to late October, there wasn't much relay. However, the owners still locked out the players and the battle was on. From July 1st, 2011 through December 8th, 2011, the 161-day stalemate ended with a brand new deal and the NBA started their season up right on Christmas Day. The NBA season was reduced down to 66 games from the traditional 82, however that was still roughly three quarters of the season so the length of the schedule wasn't a major issue. 480 games across the NBA (16 games each team) were cancelled during that time frame. For smaller market NBA cities; it hurt them economically with zero games being played.
The NHL was the third and final sport of the this group over the course of the last decade to have a lockout. The NHL had major pressure on them as the last time there was a lockout instituted by the owners the entire 2004-05 season was wiped out completely and the league knew they couldn't make the same mistake twice. Unlike the NFL and NBA where the previous labor agreement would expire on the day of the new league year, the NHL's agreement ended on September 15th, this was significant due to the fact it was right around the time that training camps were supposed to get started up. The Draft was behind them and any free agency moves were made as a result so the offseason wasn't entirely affected. The 119 day stalemate ended just after the New Year in 2013 on January 9th. The 2012-13 NHL season began on January 19th. The league played a 48-game schedule with teams playing conference games only. As a result of the lockout, 510 regular season games were cancelled which made up 41.5 percent of the leagues revenue and schedule.
The threat of cancelled games is real. The NHL and NBA combined lost a total of 990 regular season games. When in a normal year, both leagues combine for 5,080 regular season games between the months of October and April (number has gone up with the addition of both the Vegas Golden Knights and Seattle Kraken entering the NHL over a four year period). Unlike the NHL however, the NFL and NBA lost their offseason. No trades took place, no free agent signings, nothing took place. The only trades that were allowed to go down in the NFL were draft pick trades during the Draft. Teams were forbidden from making player trades until after the lockout was lifted. However, there was one common theme from all three leagues, the players were banned from all team facilities. Training rooms, team doctors, locker rooms, practice facilities. Everything was off limits to the players. Multiple players in the NBA and NHL went to Europe to play their sport until their leagues ended their lockout (yes, the players that went overseas eventually came back). Thankfully since then, all three leagues have either agreed to new CBA's ahead of time or added extensions on to theirs. The NFL reached a new CBA agreement one-year before their 2011 deal was set to expire. The NBA has added years on to theirs since 2017 and the NHL reached a new six year agreement to theirs which will take affect after the current CBA ends.
While the NFL is on its 11th year of labor peace while both the NBA and NHL are approaching or have past their 10th year of labor peace, Major League Baseball is staring at its first work stoppage in 26 years. The last time baseball had a work stoppage was 1994 when the players went of strike in August of 1994. The strike resulted in the cancellation of the remainder of the regular season and postseason. The strike carried into Spring training of the 1995 season. The strike resulted in the end of 22 years of continuous play, and the first time in a 100 year period that baseball was not going to have a champion. The only other time the MLB didn't crown a league champion was 1904, but there was reason back then and also the league was vastly different as it was in 1994 and especially today. As a result baseball had to cancel 948 regular season and postseason games across the sport. Baseball is still the only professional sports league to lose its postseason due to a player strike.
The toll that the strike took on the fans was extremely harsh and it took the sport a while to recapture the fans. The NHL is a perfect example for this. After multiple lockouts from the NHL, hockey fans were always eire of the fact of returning to the games without knowing when the next strike would come. After the entire 2004-05 campaign was wiped out, fans of hockey debated whether they should return to the arenas. Granted it wasn't the players fault but it was the owners and for a powerful sports fan base like the Boston fans are, it would be devastating to see a fan base not come back. However, the NHL has risen in popularity, the 2012 lockout didn't help matters but the fans still came back everywhere, and now there are more passionate hockey fans. Hockey really won their fans over but putting on the playoff tournament during the pandemic and starting/playing a season with little to no fans in attendance. Its those reasons alone why hockey has grown in popularity and the NHL never wants to revisit their major blunder from almost 20 years ago.
This is where baseball faces a major challenge. Around the entire league, fans are dwindling. There is rarely a sellout crowd anymore across the league. Fenway Park used to bang out the ballpark every single game regardless of how well the team was performing on the field, now you will see some empty seats throughout the duration of the game in the bleachers and even in the infield box seats.
Many would argue that the game has gotten extremely long and has become almost unwatchable due to the pace of the game. A nine-inning game what would start around 7:10, wouldn't wrap up until about 10:30 or maybe even close to 11:00, or depending if the score is tied, it would go even longer. Baseball has made changes to the game to speed up the pace of play such as the three batter rule for relievers, limiting the number of mound visits per team and few other adjustments but its still not enough.
We look back at the 2020 Covid-19 shortened season. We can see how long it took for the league to get back up and running and attempting to play a season with zero fans in attendance. The owners asking players to also make sacrifices financially by agreeing to prorated salaries. Something the players were never happy to begin with. Granted, both sides were in disagreement about a slew of issues leading up to the 60-game season that was 2020. Some called it a fake season, others; including this writer; called it a joke of a season, which in all fairness weren't completely wrong to call it that. However that was the beginning of the end for baseball in terms of labor peace.
Baseball is heading towards an ugly and potentially long lockout. While the fans are on the line whether they should be concerned about the 2022 baseball season not starting on time or if they should even bat an eye if baseball goes into a long labor dispute. The game of baseball has lost popularity in recent years and the league and players haven't done much about it. What got baseball fans back the first time was the steroid era, now that has become and issue across baseball in terms of cheating. In the league's defense there, its a fair point to be concerned about a completive disadvantage. The Astros scandal certainly didn't make baseball look good but at the time it did make fans want to go see their team play the Astros and have the opportunity to give them an earful. We missed out on that in 2020 but certainly got in 2021.
Major League Baseball owners and the Players Association still have a few days to try to hammer out a deal and avoid a work stoppage in baseball for the first time 26 years, but right now that appears to be wishful thinking. As of right now it is widely expected that as the clock strikes midnight on December 2nd, the owners will lockout the players and free agency will completely stall and all players will be left in limbo. No moves can be made during that time. No trades, no signings, no negotiations on contract extensions, nothing. If by chance that the MLB Lockout is still in effect by the time the 2022 Minor League Season gets underway, any minor league player that is on the MLB 40-man active roster will be allowed to play in the minors during the MLB-level lockout. However players cannot be demoted from Major League Baseball to the minors. So unfortunately we won't be allowed to see Aaron Judge play for the Yankees Triple-A affiliate the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Railriders. Or Mike Trout playing for the Angels Triple A affiliate the Salt Lake Bees or even here in Boston, we won't be able to see Xander Bogaerts play for the Worcester Red Sox.
The minor league season would start up as normal and play a normal season and then players who are on the rise would have to wait until the MLB season gets underway in order to try to get promoted. However, maybe some of these minor league teams and maybe minor league baseball as whole should try to get some air time on teams local networks and maybe the major networks as well pending on how long the MLB Lockout would last, that way the minors can possibly cash in on an opportunity to give some of the up and coming stars a chance at the national spotlight. Again this is also wishful thinking but the local TV and radio networks might actually be a good possibility but all that remains to be seen. We still have roughly five, five in a half months until the minor league season gets underway but that is something that they should discuss.
A work stoppage for baseball could be a death blow for most small market teams who desperately rely on the TV deals, merchandise sales and ticket sales in order for their club to possibly survive. The 2020 covid shortened, fan-less season didn't help matters and a lockout would just make matters worse. Especially the businesses around all the ballparks, they all took major blows due to the pandemic, and a lockout for any extended period of time could be the end for many fans pre-game lunches/dinners.
Only time will tell what the future holds for baseball not only for the upcoming 2022 season but for the next 10-20 years potentially. Gear up baseball fans it's going to be a long cold winter with no real baseball news until the end of the labor dispute, which could take a while to complete.
UPDATE: MLB did indeed enforce Lockout at 12:01 am on December 2nd