In 2019, the total attendance for Major League Baseball games was more than 68 million. The number of unique people who attended games is probably quite a bit lower as some individuals attended more than one game. A very conservative estimate, based on an average of three games per fan, would place the total number of attendees at 22 million. Tens of millions more watched baseball on television, bought caps, t-shirts, jerseys or otherwise supported MLB, an industry that now generates more than $11 billion annually. MLB makes money from many ways other than simply fans buying tickets, concessions or souvenirs. Television contracts are a major source of revenue while things like advertising and licensing deals also draw in money, but these are only lucrative for MLB because of the large base of fans who support the game.
Although MLB is very much a for-profit private sector endeavor, it is, on the surface, not quite like other industries. The 30 franchises compete with each other on the field for wins, but do not really compete off the field for revenue. For example, while the Dodgers and Giants may have an intense rivalry on the field, neither side benefits if the other team cannot sell tickets. Similarly, no team wants to beat their rivals so badly that they simply go out of business, the way two restaurant chains might. However, in American capitalism that compete/cooperate dynamic exists, to a lesser degree, in other sectors as well. For example, those two restaurants might compete to sell more burgers, but will cooperate to lobby against pro-labor organizing laws or raising the minimum wage.
Although MLB has tens of millions of customers, some of whom, like me, spend a lot of money every year on their products, we have very little influence on what MLB does, the decisions it makes or what our experience is as fans. MLB dedicates a lot of time and energy into figuring newer and more efficient ways of separating fans from their money, but fans have no organized way to advocate for cheaper tickets, earlier starts to postseason games, rule changes we might like, or anything else. The only organized input we give occurs when we vote for the starting lineup for the All Star game.
The insult that is added to this injury is that baseball executives are frequently dismissive of those they perceive to be “fans.” Fans are constantly told they don’t understand the game as well as teams do, or are told not to question team officials about how they balance the intricacies of payroll and player negotiations. The economics of the game are, for many fans, a black box where we are given little choice than to trust the wealthy, self-interested businesspeople who run the game. Given all this, it is no surprise that fans’ interests are generally ignored. Moreover, these interests are not considered because there are no structures through which to articulate them. It is easy for MLB to dismiss the economic interests of the fans when we have no real way to express those interests.
The result of this is that decisions that are allegedly made in the interest of the game are truly made in the interest of the handful of wealthy families and businesses that own the thirty teams. The Major League Baseball Players Association (MLBPA) is also a participant in these decisions, but is clearly a minority partner. It is also true that the interests of the fans are not always known and are likely diverse. For example, some of us may see bat flipping as a fun part of the game while others see it as disrespecting baseball’s history and culture. Some may see advanced metrics as offering interesting new ways to appreciate and analyze the game, while others see those metrics as for nerds who want to take away all the fun. However, there are some things on which a large majority of fans agree. Controlling the price of tickets, making it easier for fans, particularly younger ones on the east coast, to watch postseason baseball and, yes, addressing the pace of play and length of game related issues are important priorities for most fans.
There are other issues as well. The Hall of Fame is a great museum in the beautiful town of Cooperstown, New York, but the process of deciding who gets enshrined there has been tarnished by committees set up for powerful owners and others to pursue their interests. Many fans believe that a Hall of Fame with Roger Clemens and Barry Bonds on the outside and Jack Morris, Harold Baines and Bud Selig on the inside is absurd.
These concerns are not new and risk being just another rant by a kvetchy baseball fan, but they also underscore the need and potential power of an organized fan voice. In addition to conventional labor unions, consumer, tenant and farmer unions of various kinds have employed political power, and influence policy making all over the world. Tenants unions, which have existed in nascent forms since the late-19th Century, have successfully fought for rent regulation in many American cities; the National Farmer’s Union was founded in 1902 and has given small farmers the bargaining power to negotiate with major agricultural interests. Consumer unions, which also came about at the turn of the 20th-Century, have advocated for issues such as food safety and consumer rights.
These century-old models could be applied to baseball fans as well. The economics of this would be pretty straightforward. If even a dime from every ticket sold-not from every dollar spent on tickets, but from every ticket-went to funding this union, the nearly $7 million collected annually would be enough money for the basic overhead and staff required to get the fans union started. The politics would be more complicated as fans do not share all of the same views, but like most labor unions and other organizations, elections could be held to determine leadership, policies and advocacy priorities.
At the moment there are informal versions of this idea, dedicated to sports in general and not just baseball, in existence. The Sports Fan Coalition and the Sports Fans Union are two such examples, but they are not officially affiliated with any agency and, if the haphazard website of the latter institution is any indication, they do not appear to be run with any real efficiency or oversight. For such an enterprise to be effective, it would need the backing of Organized Baseball, a concession that ownership would be unlikely to make without a loud consensus from the fans themselves.
The goal of this fan union would be to ensure that fans, the most numerous, and in many respects most important, stakeholder in MLB have a voice in making decisions. These should include items strictly baseball related (like who gets in the Hall of Fame), as well as economic (like the price of tickets or the basic agreement governing player/management relations). Perhaps a combination of the two, like restructuring the postseason, realigning leagues and divisions, or policies around things like PEDs, could be included. Historically, there has been no fan voice in any of these things, but changing that would be, in the truest sense of an oft-misused phrase, in the best interest of the game.
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