It’s February 2022, and MLB’s lockout still shows no signs of coming to an end. The MLB Players Association and the league’s owners keep meeting, and keep walking away with little to no progress made towards agreeing to a new collective bargaining agreement (CBA). Spring training is supposed to be just a few weeks away, but since there are no signs of a deal at this point, it is now safe to say that the 2022 MLB season will likely start late.
The saddest part about the league’s current situation is there are more exciting players to watch on a daily basis than ever before. Whether it’s Shohei Ohtani pitching in 20 games and batting in another 120, Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton crushing baseballs daily or players like Fernando Tatís Jr., Juan Soto and many others captivating fans with their fiery and flashy style of play, baseball has been receiving a new and enormous wave of talent that everyone wants to watch.
Now, all of that is indefinitely on hold. After the league shut down in the summer of 1994 and canceled the World Series that year, it took a miracle for fans to remain so attached to the game when the league came back. This lockout is the first since 1994, but this time, the league is not likely to get any positive reception whenever it returns.
The players and owners disagree on nearly every issue — service time and payment, years of team control, the universal designated hitter, changes to the rules for roster size or configuration and others.
With so many areas that need to be addressed, it is no surprise the lockout has lasted over two months. What is surprising is that the level of animosity between the two sides has gotten so high in the five years since the previous CBA was agreed, they seem to be speaking different languages to each other.
Take all of these bad circumstances going on behind the scenes, and add them to what’s going on at stadiums in many cities. Whether it’s teams that usually get high attendance but have taken a hit due to the pandemic, or teams that usually get low attendance and are on the verge of playing at empty stadiums (but not on purpose this time), MLB is hurting and the only thing going well is the one thing that cannot go on — the exciting and talented players taking the field and putting on a show.
According to ESPN, three teams in MLB averaged less than 10,000 fans per game in attendance in 2021. Another seven drew less than 15,000 on average to each game. In 2019, no team averaged less than 10,000 in attendance, and only two teams were under 15,000.
When it comes to the 2021 numbers, the craziest part is that a handful of the 10 teams under 15,000, on average, were contenders right till the end of the season. The Toronto Blue Jays barely cracked 10,000 fans — though that was due in large part to having to play in the minor-league stadium for most of the season. Meanwhile, the Tampa Bay Rays and Oakland Athletics, teams with two of the least popular stadiums in the league, were also contenders all season but ranked 28th and 29th respectively in attendance (both under 10,000).
With five times as many teams attracting minuscule crowds compared to just two years ago, the league is digging itself a deeper and deeper hole as negotiations continue to go nowhere. Yes, once COVID-19 is in the rearview mirror, attendance numbers will rebound.
However, whether it’s because the pandemic doesn’t go away or because the league stays locked out for long enough, there may not be a notable fan base still drawn to games when the normalcy returns.
Major League Baseball was already trailing in popularity compared to the NFL and NBA. Meanwhile, baseball games continue to take too long and the two factions of the league are at war with each other.
It is increasingly likely at this point that the 2022 season will not feature a full slate of 162 games. As the lockout presses on, the two big questions are — how many games will be lost, and who will still care what the season looks like whenever it does finally get going.