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COLUMN

The First Step is Admitting You Have a Problem

Vivek Rao

With yet another Major League Baseball work stoppage looming on the horizon, the world of sports is abuzz with frustration, anger, and outrage aimed at both the players and the owners, with fans and media alike furious at the possibility of a strike. Yet as the appointed hour draws closer -- the union has vowed to walk out on Aug. 30 if a settlement has not yet been reached -- it is becoming apparent to any true fan of the game that a strike is the only thing left that can save the future of baseball.

At the heart of the crisis currently facing our national pastime is the great divide between the “haves” and “have-nots” of Major League Baseball. As long as teams like the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox can afford to outspend their competitors, thereby amassing the most talented rosters, small market teams such as the Kansas City Royals and Milwaukee Brewers will continue to suffer, and so will interest in the game. The current dearth of competitive balance plagues the game far more than any steroid controversies or designated hitter rules ever will.

Perhaps baseball fans can take some solace in the fact that current labor negotiations are centered around narrowing the gap between the sport’s rich and not-quite-so rich. Revenue sharing is no doubt the most obvious solution, as it would force teams to contribute some portion of their local earnings to a communal pot, with that money then being distributed among all the teams.

This would prevent teams with massive local media contracts from gaining the upper hand over their less fortunate counterparts. The current labor agreement calls for some amount of revenue sharing, but clearly not enough. While both sides of the dispute believe in increasing revenue sharing, they cannot seem to agree on how much, as players are reluctant to hinder the spending power of the big money owners.

The other primary point of contention is the luxury tax, which is essentially an alternate manifestation of a salary cap. A luxury tax only goes into effect on portions of a payroll above a certain cap, causing wealthier teams to think twice about spending inordinate amounts of money on players’ salaries. Not surprisingly, the players and owners are miles apart on this issue, with the union adamant in its objections to a luxury tax, while most owners feel it is a necessary component of the financial structure of the game. At last check, the two sides were $30-40 million apart in their proposed luxury tax caps, with the players’ proposal affecting only one team.

In the end, baseball may very well be incurable. The owners’ proposals are clearly the more logical, and their plans for revenue sharing, a luxury tax, and a host of other minor issues would almost certainly improve the standard of the game and inject some enthusiasm and interest into younger fans (as of today, Major League Baseball’s fan base is the oldest of America’s four major professional sports). The players’ union, meanwhile, clearly does not rate competitive balance as being as important as salaries on its list of priorities. Union head Donald Fehr, who affects his industry as few other labor chiefs can, appears to lack the long-term vision needed to preserve interest in the sport.

Yet at the same time, while the owners are finally realizing what needs to take place for their game to return to national prominence and fend off the charge of booming organizations like the National Football League and NASCAR, they are still the ones responsible for the current situation. Had they not exorbitantly spent beyond their means, driving salaries far beyond reasonable market value, the state of the game would not be so grave as it is today. Along similar lines, it is difficult to justify blaming the players for simply trying to earn as much money as possible. After all, if a player is used to earning $10 million a year, why should he accept a system that could conceivably cut that number down to $6-7 million?

The bottom line is that Major League Baseball is busted. It is not the product it once was, and it no longer commands a dominant share of the professional sports industry. While the owners are to blame for driving player salaries and ticket prices to ridiculous levels, they must at least be commended for trying to remedy the situation. The players, meanwhile, though justified in trying to maintain their favorable position, must realize that unless the current competitive imbalance is addressed, the popularity of baseball may be doomed.

A couple of naÏve solutions have been tossed out there, but neither seems logical. Many people hope that owners and players hammer out some sort of agreement to avoid a work stoppage. Such a solution is narrow-minded, for in order to work out a deal before Aug. 30, the two sides will have to dodge the crucial issues facing Major League Baseball and simply work out some kind of short-term solution. The other hope is that if there is indeed a strike, fans will stage a boycott of their own when the players return to the field, thereby punishing both owners and players and forcing them to realize that the fans’ concerns must be addressed. The problem with that solution is, although there is evidence of gradual decline in fan attendance and merchandise sales following past work stoppages, there is no history of widespread fan boycotts, and to rely on that is foolish.

Instead, the best hope for baseball fans is a long and bitter labor dispute that carries on for a year or so. If both the players and owners remain stubborn and unmoving, each side refusing to compromise, then there could possibly be a long work stoppage that would extend into the 2003 season. If that were to happen, then Major League Baseball would no doubt feel the effects of canceling thousands of games, and the two sides would theoretically be more willing to address the fundamental issues of the game. Having skewed the entire financial spectrum of their sport, owners must now pay by canceling an entire season. That would hit their wallets hard, but it would also be the only way of forcing the rock solid players’ union into legitimate reform of the pillars of the current setup, specifically revenue sharing and a luxury tax. Though a long labor dispute would no doubt hurt the popularity of the game in the near future, it is the only way of assuring that professional baseball can remain strong for decades and centuries to come. It is time for Major League Baseball to cut its losses and rebuild.