The 154-game season is an idea whose time has come. Again. But guess what stands in the way of seeing it actually happen?
We'll give you a hint. It isn't about stats or records or magic numbers. It isn't about schedules or travel or history books. Not really.
As always, it's about something you'll find in your wallet. And no, we don't mean that note you wrote to yourself last November (and promptly forgot) about buying flowers for your wife.
Yessir, it's all about $$$$$$$$$$, of course. Isn't everything?
So guess which aspect of shortening the season baseball has already begun to research? It's the money aspect, naturally. MLB has just kicked off an economic impact study of the ramifications of lopping games off the schedule because, let's face it, that's what really matters to the 30 owners who will have to make this call.
The impact on the numbers and the record books? They can figure that out some other time. But the impact on their cash flow? Now that's something they care about.
So what is in it for those owners to start giving up chances to open the gates and charge their customers actual money? Well, after conversations with a half-dozen of the most insightful baseball people we know, we're ready with our own economic impact study.
We apologize that Jim Cramer wasn't available to present these findings himself. So we'll just have to present them ourselves. Hey, somebody had to do it.
How much money would it cost?
Look, not even Rob Manfred knows that answer for sure. So all we can do is estimate. But we've done the math. And here's what we've come up with:
If baseball goes from 162 games per season to 154, that works out to four lost home dates for every team, and 120 altogether. But just because every team loses the same number of games doesn't mean every team would lose the same amount of money. And that's where this gets tricky.
Let's compare the Yankees with the Rays, because you might say there's a slight difference in their economic lots in life.
The Yankees led the American League in attendance last year. The Rays finished next to last. The Yankees' average ticket price was $51.55, the second highest in baseball, according to the Team Marketing Report's Fan Cost Index calculations. The Rays' average ticket price was $21.01, the fifth lowest.
So how would subtracting four home games affect those two teams' bottom lines, based on estimated ticket sales in 2014 alone?
It's way too simple to say that cutting four games would cost the Yankees $7 million more than it would cost the Rays. That's because it isn't just ticket money that goes flying out of your wallet every time you attend a game.
Start adding up dollars spent on refreshments and beverages, parking and souvenirs. And the Fan Cost Index says the average family of four attending a Yankees game spends an extra 131 bucks after buying tickets. The average family at a Rays game forks over an extra $86.
Not all that money gets divvied up the same by each team. But let's say each club keeps half of it. Now here's our adjusted computation:
And this is just two teams. The other 28 clubs are looking at having some dollar amount, in between those two figures, disappear, too, obviously. Clearly, some of that cost would get recouped because there would be no game-day workers to pay. But we're guessing we're still talking a couple of hundred million lost dollars.
So that explains why, every time this idea has been presented to the clubs in previous labor negotiations, the answer was always the same: "Not happening. Not giving up those gates." All right, then why would this time be different? Good question. Read on.
How could teams make up that lost money?
"You know what I find interesting?" mused one baseball official outside the commissioner's office. "That at the same time we're hearing talk of going to 154 games, we're also hearing talk that revenues could grow to $15 billion a year."
Hmmm, that is interesting, right? So should we assume, from that, that baseball thinks there is huge potential for revenue growth that has nothing to do with ticket sales?
"Apparently," the official replied, with quite the hearty chuckle.
We can't tell you exactly where MLB believes it can amass an extra $6 billion a year beyond the $9 billion it's generating now. But one thing is for sure: It isn't all coming from selling tickets.
But now that we're on that subject, let's remember something: Making up the money lost on a shortened season, even at the gate, wouldn't be as hard as teams would like us to believe.
"We'd be losing 5 percent of our schedule," said an official of one NL team. "So say you have a 5 percent ticket-price increase. That could even be below inflation. It's not that much. If you're charging $50 for 81 dates and $55 for 77 dates, aren't you in the same place?"
Well, no, actually. If you did that, you'd come out ahead, because that's a 10 percent increase. In truth, you know how much teams would have to raise the average sport-wide ticket price -- currently at $28.94, according to Team Marketing Report -- to make up that 5 percent?
By the whopping figure of (ready?) $1.50 a ticket, on average. That's all.
Or, if fans rebel just out of principle, that money could be made up far more subtly. Clubs could insert those increases into full or partial season-ticket packages, premium-seat costs or dynamic-pricing options so quietly that most people would never even notice.
"Or if fans really get upset," said an official of another club, "you just take a hit on tickets and make it up somewhere else. There are ways to do that."
But just in case it's crossed your mind, or Rob Manfred's mind, or the minds of any of those 30 owners, there's one way we can guarantee teams won't be able to make that money back:
By politely asking players to give back 5 percent of their salaries.
Not gonna happen. That may sound logical to a few hard-line owners out there. But based on the history of labor negotiations in this sport and the reaction of a few players we've asked, we've concluded this:
There's a better chance Bartolo Colon will lead the league in stolen bases than there is of the players giving back salary money.
Could health mean wealth?
OK, now suppose there was a way for teams to save millions of dollars as a direct result of shortening the season? They'd be sure to do that, right?
Well, have you seen the disabled list recently?
You know how much money teams paid players not to play last year, because they were on the disabled list? More than half a billion dollars. Half a billion. And the people who run this sport are starting to come around to the conclusion that the insane demands of the 162-game schedule are a totally related development.
So suppose it could be proven that fewer games, more recovery time, more days off and fewer instances of back-to-back games in, say, Tampa and Seattle would have a direct result of reducing injuries and shrinking the disabled list?
Well, unfortunately, it can't. Not yet anyway. But logically, how could anyone argue?
"There are two types of injuries in baseball," said Glenn Fleisig, research director at Dr. James Andrews' American Sports Medicine Institute. "One is traumatic events, where a guy is hit by a pitch and breaks his hand. The other is injuries that result from over-use. ... So if you shorten the season from 162 to 154, that's 5 percent fewer games, which means 5 percent less risk of those traumatic injuries. And with the over-use injuries, you'd get even more reduction. But how much more? It's almost impossible to say."
"I could see it happening, but I could also see us staying the way we are now, just because we can't figure out a way to satisfy everyone. What really is the benefit? That's what we have to find out. So let's study it. Let's measure it. Then let's see what it's worth to everyone." Unnamed club official
Nevertheless, the facts alone suggest it could be quite a bit more. According to baseballheatmaps.com, there were 477 instances last season when a player was placed on the disabled list. Incredibly, 320 of them were for strains, sprains, stiffness, tightness, discomfort, tendinitis, inflammation, soreness, shoulder fatigue or Tommy John surgery. Virtually all of those categories can be chocked up to some degree of fatigue or over-use.
But how much would eight more days off help in staving off that epidemic? Starting pitchers make up about 25 percent of the disabled list in any given year. But would one or two fewer starts, or a few instances of extra rest, have a dramatic effect? Again, no one knows.
Relief pitchers, though, account for even a higher percentage of the disabled list population (about 28 percent). And the less they have to pitch three days in a row or five times in six days, the less likely they would seem to suffer those over-use injuries. But how much less? We can only guess.
And position players, who make up the other 47 percent of the DL, are the hardest of all to quantify. Everyone agrees that fatigue is affecting performance and the injury rate in a post-amphetamines world. So fewer games almost certainly "would reduce the list of pulls and strains and sprains," Fleisig said. "But it's hard to put a number on this. We can assume injuries would go down 5 percent because there are 5 percent less games. But would they go down 6 percent or 7 percent? It's just too hard to say."
Nevertheless, even 5 percent of half a billion dollars works out to $25 million a year. So when it comes time for the shorten-the-season research wizards to figure out the bottom line, they need to remember that they can attach a dollar sign to a less grueling schedule and more rested players. That's a big part of this equation.
What about those TV deals?
In a sport where ticket money accounts for a smaller percentage of total revenues than ever, it may not be ticket-buyers that baseball has to worry about most if it shortens the season. It may just be its TV partners.
Assuming the season is still going to be 26 weeks long, with eight more off days added, the national TV deals almost certainly wouldn't be affected. As long as there are still games played every Saturday, Sunday, Monday and Wednesday, ESPN, Turner and Fox will still have plenty of programming. So no worries there.
And one more thing: Cutting the regular-season schedule at least raises the possibility of adding more games to the postseason -- expanding the Division Series to best-of-seven, for instance. So there could actually turn out to be more premium programming available to the national networks if this happens, not less. And there is money to be made there, too.
But local TV deals could be another story. The dollars flowing out of regional sports networks and into baseball's bank account get larger every year. So chopping eight games off the schedule potentially impacts the local TV partners of every team. And that's a concern.
Except, say officials of every club we spoke with, those partners know going in they're not going to televise all 162 games. Fox will take some. ESPN will take others. So "I think there's usually enough wiggle room in those RSN contracts for this to work," said one of the team officials quoted earlier. "Most of these deals are for 150-156 games anyway."
The details would still have to get worked out, of course. But those RSNs would still wind up with more baseball games on their schedule than any other source of programming. So if TV issues aren't a deal-breaker, and lost ticket revenues aren't a deal-breaker, and there would be fewer dollars wasted on injured players, then ask yourself this: Why wouldn't this happen?
"I could see it happening, but I could also see us staying the way we are now," said an official of another club, "just because we can't figure out a way to satisfy everyone. What really is the benefit? That's what we have to find out. So let's study it. Let's measure it. Then let's see what it's worth to everyone."
And that, clearly, means that, in the end, it'll all come down to - what else? - dollars and cents. But then again, doesn't everything?