Will there be baseball in this strange, socially isolated summer of 2020?
It’s not looking good.
NASCAR is already back, albeit without fans in the stands, but most of us see sports on TV anyway, so for plenty of sports-starved fans, that’s just fine.
The National Women’s Soccer League will be back, with a shortened season played tournament-style in a suburb of Salt Lake City starting June 27.
Major League Soccer and the National Basketball Association are making plans to resume play, with all the teams based at Disney World in Orlando. The fact that Disney owns ESPN has everything to do with that location.
The National Hockey League is also making plans to jump straight to expanded playoffs, with teams concentrated in a handful of yet-to-be-selected hub cities.
Baseball, the original game of summer? Owners and players are locked in contentious negotiations, the most contentious part of which is about money. Owners originally wanted players to take a pay cut on the grounds that 40% of baseball revenue comes from fans, so without fans in the stands, there’s less money to go around. Players insist on being paid their full salaries — on a pro-rated basis for a shorter season — on the grounds that owners have plenty of money. When baseball revenues go up, players don’t benefit by getting a proportional share, so why should they suffer during a bad year? Owners have relented on the pay cut idea but now want a much shorter season than players do, so they’d still wind up paying less. This is often styled as a fight between billionaires and millionaires, although not all Major League Baseball players are millionaires. The minimum wage in the MLB is $563,500 — still a heckuva lot more than any of us.
So we’re not inclined to get into this fight except for two reasons. One, we like baseball, and it would be good for the country if we could get it back, even if only on TV. Two, we in this part of Virginia have an indirect stake in all this — or at least would under the proposal we’re about to advance.
Yes, that’s right — we have a proposal that we think both baseball owners and players should like.
First: The owners should pay the players their full salaries on a pro-rated basis. Nobody likes taking a pay cut. Let others argue about the philosophy here. We’re just thinking in practical terms. The players want their full salaries, however inflated some may think they are. Go ahead and pay ’em.
Now, owners say they’ll lose $4 billion this year if they have to play without fans. Or maybe they’ll lose $4 billion if they don’t play a season at all. Accounts vary. The Fangraphs website thinks that’s a bunch of [expletive deleted]. Fangraphs lays out a lot of math to make the case that owners are trying to pull the ol’ hidden-ball play on the players. Whatever. We’re not here to do forensic accounting. Let’s just take that $4 billion figure, wherever it comes from, and run with it.
We have a way for owners to pay players their full salaries and still make up that purported $4 billion — and lots more.
What financial wizardry are we employing here, you might wonder, and can we use this on your checkbook?
The answer is simple, really: Add more teams.
We’re not the first to wonder whether the pandemic might lead to expansion; Jeff Passan of CBS Sports has done the best reporting on this subject that we’ve seen.
His rationale: If major league owners have to borrow money to get through this season, the easiest way to get that money back is through expansion team fees. Major League Baseball did this once before. To settle a lawsuit with the players in the early ’90s, baseball added teams in Miami and Denver. The amount those owners had to pay to join the league helped cover the debt, Passan reports.
Same thing here, except back then the entry fee was $95 million per team. This time around, it could be $1 billion per team. Yes, you read that right. Forbes magazine says the average value of a Major League Baseball team is $1.85 billion. The least valuable, the Miami Marlins, is still worth $980 million. The National Hockey League — where teams average $666 million in value — charged $650 million for its most recent expansion. So it makes sense that baseball would charge $1 billion.
Add two teams — to keep the number even — and that’s $2 billion. Now, here’s our more radical proposal: Add six teams and the owners pocket $6 billion, so that pays off that $4 billion and then some. Why six teams? Baseball has 30 teams now. Add four and you wind up with unbalanced leagues, but add six and you could have two leagues of 18 teams apiece.
There are certainly more than six cities out there available. Montreal wants a team back. Commissioner Rob Manfred has mused about expanding into Mexico — either Mexico City or Monterrey — and the whole point of expansion is to create new markets in which to sell TV rights and overpriced souvenir jerseys. Portland, Oregon, has an ownership group that’s been lobbying for a team. Other cities that have been mentioned: Charlotte, Raleigh, Las Vegas, Nashville, San Antonio, Vancouver. Those are 10 cities already, so you’ve got competition to help drive up the price.
So why are we here going to bat for Montreal and Mexico City and all the others? Each team would need its own network of minor league teams. Major League Baseball is currently trying to reduce the number of minor league affiliates each team has to support. It wants to whack off as many as 42 teams, including every team in the Appalachian League except for Pulaski, which would get moved into another league. This is a pernicious scheme that guts small-town America. We’re still surprised President Trump hasn’t tweeted about this assault on his voting base. MLB’s contraction plan hurts all of those 42 communities by removing one part of their quality-of-life pitch. We care about that because some of those communities being sent to the showers are close to home — Bristol and Danville in Virginia, Bluefield and Princeton just across the line in West Virginia. Add six new major league teams and those new franchises will each need at least four minor league teams. That wouldn’t save all 42 teams, but it would save at least 24 of them.
Consider this a lesson in economics: Even in this win-win scenario for owners and players, some small towns in America still lose.