Major League Baseball may soon have another fight on its hands. There’s a reason that there was never a USFL or an ABA to challenge MLB in the 20th century. The league has always been exempt from the antitrust laws passed in the Sherman Antitrust act of 1890 that attempt to ensure open competition in the free market. MLB won a Supreme Court case that said the clubs operate as entities in their own state and don’t engage in interstate commerce.
That might have made sense in 1922, even though the club owners did do business with each other like selling Babe Ruth from Boston to New York, because at least back then games were only broadcast on local radio stations. With MLB’s national television contracts now totaling nearly $2 billion per year, if the freaking Voting Rights Act can’t stay completely intact, it’s probably time for MLB to follow the same open market as everyone else — or at least on paper the same way as other companies as well off.
Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-Vermont) has introduced the Save American Baseball Act to Congress to remove MLB’s antitrust exemption. The lockout that threatened the 2022 season was the final straw for Sanders, whose frustration had been percolating since 2020 when, MLB dissolved its relationship with minor league clubs in 40 communities, including Burlington, V.T.
It is well known that Sen. Sanders is not a fan of the wealthiest of Americans’ insatiable appetite for more. However, he makes a great point in his first statement, that speaks to a national problem that can be seen in sports.
“You have a handful of billionaires who own the major league teams,” Sanders said to Bryant Gumbel on HBO’s Real Sports. “Who instead of running a system that works for the fans, works for the communities, is focusing completely on the kinds of profits that they can make.”
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First, let’s set aside how his sentiments can be applied to many societal ills that threaten the fabric of the global community. Let’s also ignore the reminder of just how spectacular Larry David was impersonating Sen. Sanders on Saturday Night Live. The big three sports all have a problem with a declining quality of their product.
While the NFL playoffs ended well this past season, most of the regular season was a complete dud. NBA fans have spent much of the regular season focusing on the General Hospital element of the sport rather than the exciting young players on the floor. With MLB, diehard fans and casuals all lament how unentertaining the regular-season product has become. The basic answer to all three of these is: Sports is not fun when the owners are concerned more about profit than product.
The NFL added an extra regular season game, for what? To add an extra week to the television contracts, and earn another week of revenue from another week of game day action at the stadiums. Most slates of games were terrible, because bye weeks stretched from Week 7 to Week 14, and an extra week of giant human beings colliding with each other results in more injuries. I’m not sure what’s less entertaining, a backup quarterback starting in an NFL game, or a legitimate starting quarterback playing behind a backup offensive line. Either way, it can put any football fan to sleep by 4 p.m. EST on Sunday.
In the NBA, there are too many regular season games. It’s why players sit so much more now than they used to when they’re relatively healthy. They realized there is no need to push it to play 82 games, especially when 16 of the 30 teams make the playoffs. Also, today’s players have been on a professional schedule since their early teenage years. American prospects take on a monster AAU schedule every summer, and in other countries, Luka Dončić starts playing in professional leagues at 16-years-old. The players come in with too many miles on their bodies and it has to be managed. At the 50 game mark, it’s usually clear which teams have the best chance to make through that two-month marathon of a postseason, but there is no way the NBA would shorten the regular-season schedule even 10 games, even though the games would have more significance and the players who bring in viewers would be more likely to be on the court every night.
For all of the arguments about pace of play or not hitting for contact, one of the MLB’s biggest problems is front offices refusing to be competitive. They don’t see the need for having a team that can hold fan’s interest all summer, even if it only results in 77 wins and no playoffs. Instead, as of today, there are, again four whole major-league ball clubs with payrolls under $60 million. There are 10 with payrolls under $100 million. That’s not to say that $200 million will win a team a World Series, but these teams at the bottom are contributing nothing to the sport. They take an uninteresting product to ballparks around the country, and make it difficult for their home fans to invest in the success of the team while the owners rake in revenue sharing money.
With the national television contracts that all three sports have recently signed, the owners may feel they can use these teams as ATMs until they feel like cashing for the biggest profit when they sell. However, sports does have the same problem as all of live television, young people are watching less. With the television landscape ever changing, teams are doing themselves no favors by, instead of improving the product, just giving us more of what they already have, while trying to pay less to do so.
If you’ve ever participated in one of those business class contests in school, the trick to winning was always to invest as much into research and development as possible. These days, sports owners not only want to invest less in development, but less into their teams period, while making record profits, and the net worths of these teams skyrocket.
They can keep trying to lessen their investment in the product to maximize profit all they want, but if they don’t want to make the effort to participate in the whole civic pride thing that sells sports, they can one day find themselves going the way of NBC’s Must See TV Thursday. Maybe Sen. Sanders’ proposal, while it will hurt MLB owners in the short run if it passes, is one tiny step that can help the league in the long run. It can force the clubs to try a little bit harder to do the thing that fans never hesitate to loudly demand of players: Compete.