SBJ/June 17 - 23, 2002/Opinion

Best hope for baseball: Players take a strike

Recently SportsBusiness Journal ran a cartoon featuring a coffin representing Major League Baseball with a nail about to be pounded into it. This satirical viewpoint insinuating that another work stoppage will be the demise of the league is powerful, but not necessarily the correct characterization for the inevitable event.

For the owners, a strike by the players should take the form of another image: a reprieve from the Grim Reaper. In a heated climate of tension between labor and management, a strike or lockout is the only solution.

The endemic problem facing the league is easy to quantify. The six to seven upper-echelon teams have payrolls that eclipse the expenditures of the lower class by two to three times. The financial rift between franchises based on the amount of locally generated revenue and a salary structure that takes advantage of these inequities are factors leading to the death of Major League Baseball.

A strike is the last chance for the owners to finally establish some fiscal sanity. This highly criticized group should take the NBA's playbook from its 1998-99 work stoppage to the nearest Xerox machine and make 30 copies. Reliance on a hard-line stance to solve the league's ills might not the best method, but the level of spite brimming on both sides leaves no other alternative.

The two camps have attempted to negotiate behind closed doors and in front of cameras and microphones without success.

The players association's refusal to listen to any talk of a salary cap or a luxury tax coupled with the owners' claim that they must take an oath of poverty to operate a team is a combustible predicament that has little chance of reaching a diplomatic settlement.

Shutting down the game because of exorbitant salaries worked for the NBA. The league no longer has to worry about the likes of Glenn Robinson entering the league and demanding an outrageous salary higher than the value of the franchise. The league's soft salary cap and the new dollar-for-dollar fine for exceeding the limit have created an equitable system where parity is the goal.

Baseball has more experience with work stoppages, four strikes and three lockouts by owners since 1972. Yet, the league still cannot find a way to clean up its financial mess that escalates each year.

NBA owners demonstrated that solidarity among the ranks concerning the salary issue is the only way to establish a coherent economic policy. With such a diverse group populating Major League Baseball's owners' boxes, forming agreements is never an easy task. George Steinbrenner's ego, bottom line-conscious corporations such as the Tribune Co., Tom Hicks' checkbooks, and Jeffrey Loria's delusions of grandeur make it difficult to establish a proposal that benefits all owners, not self-interests. It is imperative that the owners with their various agendas share the same perspective during negotiations for the league to survive. The owners must keep their ground so all parties prosper, including the players, and not place Band-Aids on deep wounds like the ones administered in 1994.

The only way the league can implement any measure resembling a salary cap is to halt play.

A protracted MLB strike is a arduous undertaking compared to the work stoppage in the NBA, because the ultimate "yes man" Bud Selig does not have David Stern's charm and polish. Working in favor of baseball owners, however, is that Donald Fehr does not have Bud Selig's charm and polish.

Eliminating part or all of a season will certainly raise the volume of disgruntled baseball fans who complain that the next time is the last time they will put up with a tug of war of millionaires versus billionaires. A certain number of fans won't come back. The average fan 25 and older will look around for other options. Maybe they wind up watching more sitcoms on television or find another use for the dollars previously spent on tickets. They will eventually come back, however. They always do.

Conversely, with another work stoppage baseball will surely lose the attention of an even younger generation that has numerous entertainment options and will likely gravitate toward extreme sports in greater amounts during the absence. As it is, the league is not drawing this young and influential fan base anyway.

But that is another problem.

Aaron J. Moore is a Philadelphia-based media research analyst.

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