Is Major League Baseball killing itself? Probably not

Pittsburgh Pirates shortstop Wilmer Difo (15) is tagged out at the plate by Cincinnati Reds catcher Tyler Stephenson (37) attempting to score on a Phillip Evans double to right field in the fourth inning of the MLB National League game between the Cincinnati Reds and the Pittsburgh Pirates at Great American Ball Park in downtown Cincinnati on Wednesday, April 7, 2021. The Reds led 8-0 in the sixth inning.Pittsburgh Pirates At Cincinnati Reds
Pittsburgh Pirates shortstop Wilmer Difo (15) is tagged out at the plate by Cincinnati Reds catcher Tyler Stephenson (37) attempting to score on a Phillip Evans double to right field in the fourth inning of the MLB National League game between the Cincinnati Reds and the Pittsburgh Pirates at Great American Ball Park in downtown Cincinnati on Wednesday, April 7, 2021. The Reds led 8-0 in the sixth inning.Pittsburgh Pirates At Cincinnati Reds /
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Isn’t it amazing how Major League Baseball survives, and even thrives, despite the game’s best efforts at killing itself?

The fumbling status of negotiations over a new Basic Agreement are just the latest illustration of the collective efforts by owners and players at killing their game. The sport already holds the all-time American record for most work stoppages by a major sports league, having shut down in 1972, 1981, 1994, and 1995.

There hasn’t been a stoppage in three decades, not since 1994-95 when a mid-season players strike caused cancellation of that year’s World Series and delayed the start of the 1995 season.

Now owners say that if a deal isn’t finalized by Monday, the start of the 2022 season will be pushed back, with regular season games cancelled and not made up.

The conventional wisdom is that such an event would turn off an already shrinking fan base, making baseball even less relevant on the national sports scene than it already is.

Only time will tell, of course. But both history and culture suggest that killing Major League Baseball isn’t easily done.

It is undeniable that fan interest in baseball has decreased, at least over the long term. According to Gallup, Americans asked to identify their favorite sport to watch have consistently selected football — pro or college undefined — since the mid-1960s.

At that time, baseball was the favorite sport of 30 percent of respondents; today the corresponding figure is in single digits.

But Gallup’s news isn’t all negative for baseball. Asked as recently as 2019 to assert whether they are a fan of various sports, 54 percent identified with baseball. That’s just 5 percent fewer than those who identified with pro football, and 10 percent more than those who said they were fans of pro basketball.

That 54 percent figure also represented a 17 percent uptick from when an identical question was asked in 2001.

It may not be coincidence that Major League Baseball has enjoyed uninterrupted labor peace since then. Neither the NBA, which locked players out through six weeks of the 2011 season, nor the NHL, which shut down for all of 2004 and again for much of 2012, can say the same.

Then again, perhaps those work stoppages had little effect on fan interest. When the NHL shut down in 2004, only 18 percent of Americans told Gallup they were fans of the sport. The comparable figure rose to 22 percent by 2012, and to 24 percent by 2017.

In the 2012 Gallup survey, 33 percent declared themselves pro basketball fans, precisely the same number as had done so in 2004 before the sport’s work stoppage.

One reason baseball survives so many self-inflicted attacks on its status may be its place in the nation’s cultural life. A few years ago, Sports Illustrated compiled a list of the 100 greatest books on sports in America. Three of its top five, and 28 of its top 100, focused on baseball. No other sport had half as many entries on the list.

The sport isn’t quite as dominant in Hollywood, but it still holds its own. A few years ago IMDB, the pre-eminent online authority on movies, compiled a list of the 20 most successful sports-related movies of all-time.

Four baseball-themed movies – “Field of Dreams” (3), “Bull Durham” (8), “The Natural” (10), and “A League Of Their Own” (19) made the list. Only one sport had more films among the 20 best, and it wasn’t football, but boxing, with five.

A couple years later Men’s Health one-upped IMDB with its own list of 40 best. On that list, 10 of that 40, fully one-quarter, focused on baseball.

Perhaps the game’s enduring popularity lies in its inter-generational nature. It is, after all the oldest of American professional team sports, dating back to the early post-Civil War days.

Especially if regular season games are lost, that popularity may soon be tested. But for all the angst expressed over them, there is scant data to support the idea that previous work stoppages cost either patronage or fan interest, at least in the long term.

Gallup found that the percentage of those declaring baseball to be their favorite sport held steady through the 1981 turmoil, and actually rose in the mid-1990s.

Nor, at least at the top of the market, has the game lost value as a business venture. In its 2021 report on the values of major North American sports teams, Forbes found that the top six baseball franchises — the New York Yankees, Los Angeles Dodgers, Boston Red Sox, Chicago Cubs, San Francisco Giants, and New York Mets — saw their values swell by an average of 48 percent just since 2016.

If anybody’s killing those teams, they’re doing a danged bad job of it.

In their perpetually stalled negotiations, Major League Baseball owners and players make it feel like the game is on its last legs.

Next. Ranking the 12 winningest teams in MLB history. dark

But baseball is a resilient sport, probably tough enough to survive even the current level of mutual ineptitude.