With the pandemic continuing to ravage the world and sports leagues struggling to find ways to play and televise games without fans, the fate of Major League Baseball is still unknown.
Whether professional baseball returns at all this year is up in the air, since owners and the league’s Players Association continue to wrangle over the number and location of games and how to compensate players. As of the second week of June, we have no deal, no timetable and no baseball.
This is bad for fans, bad for advertisers and bad for TV programmers and distributors. Baseball may be teetering on the ledge of an epic fail when it could have been capitalizing on a huge opportunity.
Is MLB Going to Strike Out?
Hello MLB? Your competition in June would have been Bundesliga and NASCAR? No offense to racing fans and German soccer aficionados, but MLB would have been the biggest game in town. It wouldn’t even have been close.
Major League Baseball hasn’t suffered from a work stoppage since the strike of 1994, a year that saw baseball players and owners throw away the season and fail to crown a World Series champion for the first time since World War II. Fans and advertisers were slow to return, and many have never come back. It begs the question of how much damage can be done in 2020.
Baseball has some major challenges even if it does return. Attendance at games has been dropping since 2012, and World Series viewership has been in decline since 2016. (Last year’s World Series was down 1.3% from 2018.)
Still, over 68 million people attended an MLB game last year. And even with declining in-person attendance, plenty of people are still tuning in. Per Nielsen ratings from 2019:
- 12 of the 29 U.S. teams were the most popular primetime broadcast in their market
- On cable, 24 teams ranked first in their market during primetime
- MLB ranked first overall on cable in every major market in the U.S. except Miami
MLB revenue in 2019 was $10.7 billion, which was largely tied to TV deals. A lot is at stake, but which side is going to blink first? It seems that the owners may be content to sit this season out.
What Happens If MLB Sits a Year Out
Here are four things that could—or should—happen if baseball doesn’t return this year:
- Baseball could be looking at an incredible backlash if the season is flushed away. The issue now is one of economics, not safety, and that’s not a position fans or advertisers will stomach. The MLB could experience an even steeper decline than the one in 1994. Recovery didn’t fully happen until 1998, when Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire raced to break Roger Maris’s home-run record.
- Major markets across the MLB footprint will be looking for a new tentpole program during primetime. Buyers may divert advertising dollars to the NBA and NHL, which already have plans to come back, or look into MMA and other live events to fill the hole left by professional baseball. The risk for MLB is that once the hole is filled, it might be filled forever.
- If primetime viewership continues to rise sans baseball, TV operators should look to adjust rates upward and seek out other opportunities in sports that are maintaining live coverage, such as NASCAR and PGA, as additional alternatives to baseball.
- Local stations should take an in-depth look at their programming to identify the closest matches for baseball’s key demos. Then they should price and market that programming accordingly to drive viewership in the absence of baseball—and drive advertisers to those programs. This should be done sooner rather than later.
What will be the lasting image of the 2020 baseball season: a triumphant summer return and an exciting Fall Classic, or a gut-wrenching work stoppage over a few million dollars, all while the NBA, NHL and other leagues have figured it out? If it took three or four years for fans to return in the ‘90s, how long will it take this time?
Say Hey, MLB: Let’s strap on the cleats and play ball!