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As Sports Move to Return, Baseball is Looking Left Out

We’re about a week shy of three months without live team sports here in the U.S., but plans appear to be coming together for a return this summer.

The NHL has already announced a 24-team playoff in two pod cities (East and West), though don’t yet have a start date. Meanwhile, Orlando will be the host for both the NBA and MLS when they make their respective comebacks. On Thursday, NBA owners approved a 22-team event to close the regular season and hold the playoffs running from July 31 through as late as October 12. MLS has not revealed a date yet, though a new collective bargaining agreement with the players association indicates that will occur soon. Unlike hockey and basketball, MLS was just getting started on the 2020 season when quarantines hit.

The NFL and college football were in the middle of their own offseasons when live sports were suspended in March, and as of right now, it appears they’ll plan to get started in September, as scheduled. You’ll notice that MLB — which was in the middle of spring training when games were cancelled — is conspicuously absent here.

With an 162-game regular season and teams heavily reliant on gate receipts and regional network deals (over the national contracts that buoy the NBA and NFL, particularly), baseball has unique challenges and no clear solution to restarting.

Obviously a full season was out of the question by May, and continual breakdowns in negotiations between players and owners around games, salaries and postseason made things even more impossible. Unlike hockey and basketball, playing indoors isn’t really an option. And the two metro areas they could potentially utilize for games — Phoenix and Miami — are unforgivingly hot in summer.

Without any sort of plan in place yet, the odds of MLB being able to even have a meaningful 2020 season get slimmer by the day, though there’s now talk of a 50-game campaign occuring, with a normal playoff structure thereafter. The question, if the season’s really that short: Will anyone care?

As football overtook baseball as America’s “national pastime” and basketball grew in global popularity, baseball’s niche now largely comes from being the only game in town all summer, as the other pro leagues are in the offseason. The staggered schedule of sports in the U.S. provides a full calendar of games from January through December — though baseball, despite becoming far more regionally focused in recent years — gets the most time without any real opposition. From mid-June through late August, baseball’s the only game in town. And the MLB season gets most interesting when football starts back up, helping fight off what would otherwise be waning viewership.

The issue for baseball in 2020, though, is that it won’t enjoy this luxury. And it may not for 2021, either.

Assume the NHL and NBA both restart in late July, and same with MLS (which always plays in summer but doesn’t necessarily compete with baseball given fan demographics and games once per week). Even if baseball does the same, they’re now competing against the NHL and NBA Playoffs instead of (or really, along with) golf and tennis. Last year’s NBA Playoffs made over $800 million in TV ad revenues according to iSpot.tv (and that was without a quarantine creating more anticipation). The Stanley Cup Playoffs generated over $450 million. MLB’s postseason, by comparison, saw about $475 million, but was also just up against football and had virtually no opposition during the week until the World Series had already started.

Advertisers have been cautious since COVID-19 appeared, but projections put the recovery in Q3, which would line up with the return of live (team) sports. That’s good news for networks and these leagues as a whole. But competition for ad dollars is suddenly a lot fiercer, as you could see an overlap of the baseball, MLS, NHL and NBA playoffs, plus the NFL and college football. Competing for both national and regional attention with more sports than it typically does, it’s reasonable to have some skepticism around MLB’s abilities to succeed once it starts the season.

The same issue may carry over to 2021 as well. While hockey and basketball typically start in October, that’s when the current season is set to end. That means the 2020-21 schedule would begin somewhere around December or January for both, and run deeper in the summer (July/August) than normal. For years, the NBA’s discussed using Christmas as its annual start date. This could be an opportunity to make that happen — which would create more regular conflict with baseball’s regular season (a situation baseball seems unlikely to want). Though hockey’s regular season is regional like baseball’s, the playoffs would present yet another daily distraction from the slog of a full MLB campaign.

All of this assumes that baseball even comes back for 2020, too. Despite a breakdown of talks, MLB Network’s Jon Heyman has expressed there’s optimism the commissioner can simply “make” a shortened season happen. If he can’t, then there has to be a drop-dead date for when some sort of decision about playing in 2020 occurs. Given that it’s already June and you need at least a month to get moving, the moment when the season’s simply cancelled does seem to get closer and closer.

Baseball’s recovered from a cancelled World Series before. After not holding a 1994 Fall Classic due to the players’ strike, MLB surged in popularity again amid the “Home Run Chase” of the late 1990s. The steroid era, regional shifts and a stagnancy of top teams have potentially erased a lot of that interest by now. A lack of an entire season, though — even in the middle of a pandemic — could permanently relegate it to the second rung of U.S. pro sports that hockey (a sport with its own less-diverse fan base and a missed season back in 2004-05) already inhabits.

This story’s far from over just yet. However, it’s getting tougher and tougher to see baseball putting together something resembling a real season.