Today’s MLB is nothing like what it used to be. There was a time when baseball was “America’s Pastime”; fans would flock to ballparks to watch their favorite teams while Americans all over the country tuned in on their radios and televisions. Much of this cultural significance has since dissipated due to decreasing viewership in the form of ticket sales and TV ratings. A recent lack of interest is largely due a rather unexciting postseason with the same teams experiencing success year after year as a result of the absence of a salary cap. The MLB should implement a salary cap that limits payroll spending in the near future to preserve the integrity of the league and increase ticket sales by as much as 17%.
During the early to mid 1900s baseball had significant historical and cultural influence. Throughout the course of World War II the MLB was used as a massive platform to support the war effort. The careers of a number of star players such as Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio publicly served in the war. From when the war started in 1939 to when it ended in 1945; baseball games turned into patriotic events. Even though the overall level of competition dropped due to the number of players serving in the war, stadiums continued to fill up. This time period is largely responsible for America’s love of the game. However, shortly before the beginning of World War II was the Great Depression. The nine year span from 1929 to 1938 in which the Great Depression was in effect proved to be a difficult time for the league. During a lack of nationwide financial prosperity only two teams were able to remain profitable. Teams were forced to resort to desperate measures in order to survive; additional games were scheduled, ticket prices increased, and players were cut. Nearly all tactics implemented proved to be counterproductive. By charging more for tickets, attendance was reduced somewhat expectedly. This made life very difficult for the MLB and the league struggled for a number of years.
Arguably the most important moment in the 150 year history of the MLB is the breaking of what was known as “the color barrier.” The MLB began as an all white league in 1869. The Civil War had ended just four years prior and racial tensions were at an all time high. African Americans who wanted to play professional baseball were forced to compete in separate Negro Leagues. Along with trying to preserve segregation and policies that coincided with the Jim Crow laws; high level executives in Major League Baseball feared that players in the Negro Leagues were more talented. The effort to maintain segregation in baseball was fueled by racist prejudice and ulterior motives. Efforts to integrate the league were not motivated by a desire for African Americans to compete on the big stage so much as they were to fight segregation. Teams on the other hand were far more interested in winning games than taking a political stand. Most of the attempts to break the divide between the racially segregated leagues known as the “color barrier” were suppressed by an imbalance of power. Major League Baseball had much of American on its side, it was going to be an uphill battle for the African American community.
The first serious attempt to integrate came in 1942. Businessman Bill Veeck attempted to buy the Philadelphia Phillies of the MLB and fill the roster with African American players. Veeck was motivated by trying to turn the Phillies into a winning ballclub. He believed that there was more talent in the Negro Leagues, integrating baseball was simply a byproduct of his goal. Regardless, Veeck also tried to take advantage of the fact that there wasn’t actually any official rule preventing African Americans from entering the MLB, it was just an unwritten policy. Ironically, after Veeck’s motion purchase the Phillies was denied by the league, the Phillies became one of the last teams to integrate. But this attempt did yield some hope for integration. Many MLB clubs began scouting the Negro Leagues for players after hearing Veeck’s claims that there was an abundance of untapped potential. Motivated by a desire to win, teams such as the Cleveland Indians and Brooklyn Dodgers explored the possibility of signing talented African American players. One player in particular caught the eye of Branch Rickey, manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers. Jackie Robinson had established himself as the most dominant player in the Negro Leagues. Although only playing one year in the Negro League with the Kansas City Monarchs, he finished the year with 63 hits in 47 games with a batting average of 0.387. Known for his athleticism and baserunning, there was no doubt that Robinson was capable of performing at the highest level. Yet no one could prepare Robinson for the mental trauma he would have to endure to break the color barrier. Rickey was determined to sign Robinson and was prepared to do so by any means necessary. Only after Robinson agreed to turn a blind eye to the racial criticism he would face did Rickey agree to sign Robinson to a contract on October 23, 1945. Robinson made his debut for the Brooklyn Dodgers in April of 1947 after spending a year training in the Minor Leagues. This turn of events paved the way for not only future African American baseball players, but steps towards integration nationwide.
In recent history the MLB has struggled to compete with the other three major American leagues and their rising popularity. The NHL has doubled its revenue since 2006 and has exploded in popularity. Youth sports in general are on the decline but the amount of 6-12 year old hockey players has increased by 64%. Once a rather obscure sport, a steady upward trend has propelled the NHL into the same company as the MLB, NBA, and NFL. The NFL has kept its place at the top of American sports and more than doubled its revenue since 2005 largely due to the hiring of commissioner Roger Goodell. The NBA on the other hand is in an interesting situation trying to take advantage of the international market. China specifically represents massive potential, the NBA has over 178 million followers from China alone. The NBA is currently the third most popular league in America but poses a huge threat to the NFL and MLB if able to successfully advertise overseas.
Contrary to the recent success of other major sports leagues, ticket sales in the MLB were the lowest they’ve been in 15 years in 2017. Many signs point to baseball being a dying sport, the average MLB fan is 57 years old, higher than any of the other three leagues, and youth participation is on the decline. In the 1990s nearly 3 million kids participated in youth baseball, in 2015 that number was down to 2.4 million. Counties all over the country are no longer able to field little league teams due to a shortage of participants and interests. As youth baseball continues to fade and the fan base ages, the MLB will be faced with serious problems. Many old timers have an interest in baseball because it was the sport they grew up playing and watching, it possesses a certain nostalgic trait. Before the rise of the NFL, baseball was far and away the most popular sport in America. Nowadays, kids towards basketball, football, and hockey. In 2008 a poll was released asking Americans what their favorite sport was, a whoping 41% said football while just 10% responded baseball. Furthermore, from 1937 to 2017 a poll displayed that the amount of Americans choosing baseball as their favorite sport had decreased by 23% while football and basketball both tose by 10% and 3% respectively overtaking baseball. Perhaps even more surprising is the fact that soccer has nearly matched baseball in popularity.
Baseball’s inability to appeal to the modern fan can be attributed to a number of factors. Baseball games are significantly longer than other sports. To make matters worse, baseball games are only getting longer. During the 2005 season the average length of an MLB game was 2 hours and 46 minutes, by 2018 that number had increased to 3 hours and 4 minutes. Unlike basketball, football, and hockey, there is no clock regulating the length of a game. Constant stoppages such as mound visits, bullpen subsitions, umpire reviews, and a number of others only serve to extend the game. Average game length has increased because of things such as walk up songs and unnecessarily long pre-pitch routines by both batters and pitchers. Teams have also become smarter and more strategic.In the heyday of the MLB around two different pitchers were used by each team per game. Nowadays teams deploy more pitchers to handle specific situations. For example; teams will do things such as put in a left handed pitcher just to face a single batter. This specialized left handed pitcher is known as a LOOGuY or left handed one out guy. These strategies were foreign concepts to ball clubs in the 1900s. More pitchers means more commercial breaks, delays, stoppages, etc. Another reason why baseball does not appeal to the younger generation is because of a deficiency of action. The vast majority of pitches are balls and strikes. Only a refined fan will appreciate a pitch on the corner of the strike zone for a called strike, or a batter having the self control to hold back on a tempting pitch and take a ball. Most fans consider this part of the game boring and want to see the ball batted in play. But with pitchers becoming more advanced and teams becoming smarter, hits are becoming increasingly rare. The baseball season consists of 162 games while the NFL has 16 and the NBA and NHL each have 82 game seasons. With so many games in a season each game is less important. Few fans are dedicated enough to tune in to all 162 games or even close to that. Baseball lacks character and a connection to popular culture. In other sports creative celebrations have become a way for athletes to express themselves and connect with fans. Meanwhile baseball discourages this kind of behavior and doesn’t allow for flashy celebrations or on field antics to the extent that its competitors do. Basketball, football, and hockey have all evolved with time by embracing trends in pop culture through celebrity endorsements, ad campaigns, etc. Baseball’s inability to change and adapt along with its slow playstyle due to the nature of the game has created a clear disconnect with younger generations in America. Finally, the MLB playoffs are uninteresting for many fans because there is little variation with the teams that make the playoffs each year. For example: the Seattle Mariners have not been to the playoffs in 16 years while there are a number of teams who have become mainstays in the postseason such as the Yankees, Red Sox, and the Houston Astros. These three teams along with a few others that consistently succeed all have one thing in common, they are located in big market cities and have relatively high payrolls.
The MLB has taken various steps to nullify these factors and retain interest in the league. Limiting the amount of mound visits helps maintain the flow of the game. Teams are now restricted to just six mound visits per game. The league has also shortened time between innings to help shorten games. In the past when a pitcher decided to intentionally walk a batter, he had to throw four intentionals to the catcher before the batter could talk first base. Now a pitcher or manager can signal to the umpire who would then put the batter on first. A more loosely enforced rule requires batter to keep at least one foot in the batter box between pitches. This is an effort to regulate routines between pitches by the batter. The change that could potentially be the most effective in shortening MLB games is not yet in effect. The idea of a pitch clock has been explored in the Minor Leagues and has been proven to be a very effective option. A pitch clock is a clock behind the catcher clearly visible to the pitcher that counts down from a set time alerting the pitcher of when the pitch must be thrown. This would increase the fluidity while shortening games which can help increase viewership and ratings.
Of all of the issues responsible for a decrease in popularity, not having a salary cap is the only one that blatantly threatens the integrity of the game. A salary cap is a limit on the amount of money each team can spend paying its players’ salaries. The absence of a salary cap puts most of the league at a dramatic financial disadvantage. In 2018 there were six teams that brought in over $400 million in revenue, those teams were: the New York Yankees, Los Angeles Dodgers, Boston Red Sox, San Francisco Giants, and the Chicago Cubs. In the NFL, NHL, or NBA teams prospering financially would be able to do things like improve their stadium, purchase new equipment or other amenities. But a salary cap prevents them from being able to spend more money than their competitors on player salaries increasing their payroll. In the MLB however, without a salary cap, teams are able to pay their players as much as they can afford to. Uncoincidentally, in 2018 the five teams with the highest payrolls were: the New York Yankees, Los Angeles Dodgers, Boston Red Sox, San Francisco Giants, and the Chicago Cubs. In the modern MLB win percentage and payroll have become closely linked. Success should be a measure of talent and skill, not money. In 2019 the Boston Red Sox had a payroll of $229 million, meanwhile the Tampa Bay Rays’ payroll was just $64 million. This is an astronomical difference that prevents a team like Tampa Bay from ever being able to compete with Boston due to a financial disadvantage.
The MLB has attempted to solve this problem by implementing a luxury or “competitive balance tax” in 2014. This is a method of taxing teams with payrolls that exceed a previously agreed upon threshold. For example: from 2014-2016 the threshold was $189 million, so any team that exceeded $189 million in payroll spending was taxed on each exceeding dollar. Since 2016 the threshold has slowly increased from $195 million in 2017 to $206 million in 2019. For the first year exceeding the threshold the tax is 20%, the second year is 30%, and each year after is 50%. There is an additional 12% tax for exceeding the threshold by $20 million to $40 million and an additional 42.5% tax for exceeding by more than $40 million. The problem with this strategy is that teams able to pay their players over $200 million per year aren’t affected by these relatively insignificant taxes. Teams that have exceeded the threshold in the past have made very little effort to change their ways and avoid the increasingly harsh taxes. Another method used by the MLB to level the playing field is a policy known as Competitive Balance Draft picks. This rule uses an algorithm to rank teams based on the relationship between winning percentage and payroll. Teams who do exceptionally well in relation to their payroll are rewarded with additional picks in the upcoming draft. In certain situations teams may also be compensated with seven figure sums of cash.
These steps do help mitigate the situation but the imbalance is still clear. The unfairness of the league can be seen in Michael Lewis’ novel, “Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game.” Lewis explores one of the most notorious teams in MLB history. The 2002 Oakland Athletics accomplished something that should have been impossible. After having a successful 2001 campaign losing to the Yankees in the American League Division Series, the Athletics lost their three key players, Jason Giambi, Johnny Damon, and Jason Isringhausen to the Boston Red Sox, New York Yankees, and St. Louis Cardinals because they were unable to pay their three superstars. A frustrated Oakland management team led by general manager Billy Beane were forced to fill significant holes in their roster while working with a limited budget. The Athletics decided to adopt a method originally created by mathematician Bill James. James developed a formula that he believed could calculate the worth of a player based on how often that player gets on base. This idea was unique because it did not consider how the batter reached first base, it valued a walk just as much as a base hit. Using this formula Billy Beane signed a number of players that according to James’ formula, were severely undervalued. Although the Athletics did not win the World Series, they finished the regular season with the best winning percentage in the league and won 20 consecutive games from August 13 to September 3. The 2002 Athletics are a prime example of a team hindered by a lack of a salary cap forced to make do in a small market city. What they did in 2002 was remarkable considering the circumstances but anything like it is unlikely to ever happen again. A salary cap would effectively solve this problem and give teams with a winning procedure like the Oakland Athletics, a chance to succeed. As it stands, small market teams in similar situations become farm teams for the giants of the MLB such as the Red Sox and Yankees.
A salary cap would not only solve this problem, but it would make the league more exciting and interesting. The current system is unjust and the methods employed have proven to be ineffective. Winning percentage and payroll continue to be directly linked with money as a result of location determining the fate of small market teams. The MLB has acknowledged the problem by implementing policies to nullify the situation, but the steps taken have not been drastic enough. In conclusion, the forceful implementation of a salary cap in the MLB would level the playing field and could restore the league to its former glory.