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MLB is risking relegating itself to stepchild status compared to NFL, NBA

The National Basketball Association may be on its way to a return. Major League Soccer has reached an agreement to restart its season. An NFL season seems like a distinct possibility, as teams prepare for pivoted training camps in the coronavirus era.

And baseball? America’s pastime? Where is it? Still arguing over money, same as the previous two weeks.

The real danger that looms over baseball isn’t the prolonged sparring session between millionaires and billionaires. No, it’s the possible death knell of being pro sports’ lone holdout after years of looking for ways to recapture its market share.

A couple months ago, we were talking about how baseball might have a lot to gain from being the first sport back from its coronavirus shutdown. We imagined a sports world where baseball was the main event. Where fans got to fall in love with Juan Soto and Ronald Acuña Jr. and gush over Mike Trout and Christian Yelich instead of debating LeBron James’ legacy or whether Tom Brady’s Bucs stood a chance in the NFL.

Now, we’re looking at the inverse: What if baseball is the only major sport that doesn’t come back? What if — in a move that could really tell us baseball’s place in the modern sports ecosystem — baseball stays on the sidelines and we’re so consumed with LeBron and Tom Brady that the majority of sports fans don’t even miss baseball?

The impact of empty MLB stadiums could be bigger than money. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

As baseball continues to fight amongst itself to work out a revenue model that will work for 2020, the NBA will vote on a plan on Thursday that would restart the season in July at Walt Disney Resort in Florida. It would be a 22-team league that accelerates into the playoffs. Those would stretch into September and October, a sign that even if baseball does get its act together, it’s already looking at stepchild status among the NBA and NFL.

In the story about the NBA’s return, player salaries don’t come into play until literally the very last line. Players would get close to 90 percent of their full salaries. Meanwhile, baseball players and team owners have been bickering about theirs for weeks.

Nothing shows how far apart the two sides are more than their dueling proposals: Players were proposing a 114-game season (which owners rejected, and see as a non-starter.) Owners apparently are willing to impose a 50-game season on players if they can’t find middle ground.

The issue remains salary — players maintain they’re entitled to prorated salaries based on a March agreement. The owners tried to push two different revenue models past players, who balked at taking any further pay cuts. Now, owners seem to be using a threat of a 50-game season to tell the players: “We’re going to limit your salaries one way or another.”

This is not the point in the column where I tell you which side to get behind. Likewise, this is not a everybody-come-together-for-the-good-of-the-fans column. But people on both sides better start to realize that the collateral damage of their fight could be more dire than dollars.

Fact is, the sides engaged in this battle are fighting like a divorcing couple. Neither wants the other side to win. But like an ugly divorce, both sides are running the risk of burning down everything just to spite the people on the other side of the table. And that’s a comparison rooted in some truth — the league and the union came into these negotiations with beef that’s been boiling since the last collective bargaining agreement.

Watching the other sports leagues figure it out should be a moment for both Major League Baseball and its players’ union to stop and think about what’s really important here. Is it how much money they make in 2020? Or is it the long-term health of the game?

As bad as the 1994 strike was for baseball, this could be crushing for MLB. 

Regardless of who is right and who is wrong, we all know what will happen: The entire league, players and owners alike, will be painted as greedy. Fans will be angry. We’ll get months of stories about whether the fans will come back. And a sport that was already lagging behind the NBA and NFL in the battle for America’s attention will get lapped.

That’s what’s really at stake here. Not millions of dollars. Not a union’s pride. Not an owner’s principles. It’s the long-term health of a sport that makes them both very rich.

If they can’t figure this out, then both the players and the owners will be in for a reality check when LeBron is dunking, Tom Brady is throwing touchdowns and we’re all still missing Mike Trout.

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