AP-NORC poll: Interest outweighs ire over delayed MLB season

NEW YORK -- About 1 in 4 fans of Major League Baseball feel at least some anger toward the sport after its first work stoppage in a generation, according to a new poll, but the vast majority are still excited about the new season.

Only 27% of Americans say they are currently fans of MLB, according to the poll from The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research.

The poll also finds 32% of Americans 45 and older say they currently are fans, but only 22% of younger adults (a trend MLB management says it is working to reverse).

Even among fans, few were very attuned to the 99-day lockout that delayed the start of the season from March 31 until Thursday or say that it had a major impact on their views of MLB.

Jason Timmons grew up watching the Chicago Cubs and was following closely when they won the World Series in 2016, but he said he didn't know they would be starting their season Thursday because "the whole labor thing kind of turned me off."

"I think it's petty," said Timmons, a 43-year-old from St. Marys, West Virginia. "I just don't think it's right -- billionaires fighting with billionaires over just little stuff."

The poll shows three-quarters of fans say they're at least somewhat excited about the upcoming season, and even more say they're at least somewhat interested. Still, 28% of fans are at least somewhat angry and 39% are at least somewhat frustrated after the dispute, in which management and players vented their criticism of each other during weeks when the start of spring training was delayed.

"They're always bickering about their labor," Timmons said. "And it's like, you're just playing baseball. I mean, there's other things going on in the world that's more important than bickering about what they're bickering about."

Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred apologized to fans when the labor agreement was reached on March 10. Union head Tony Clark said several times during the dispute that management chose to institute the work stoppage as a strategy.

For some, the lockout was only further evidence of what they were already feeling. The poll shows 22% of Americans say they used to be major league baseball fans but are not anymore. Donald Joy is among them.

"I used to play baseball, I used to be a fan of it, but I've gotten away from it because of all of the nonsense," said Joy, a 70-year-old from Bailey, Colorado.

Joy lamented the growing costs for fans, from the price of a ticket to go to a game to the cost of a hot dog at the stadium.

"You get to a point where it's not about the fans anymore," Joy said. "It's become a rich man's sport. It is not for the masses."

But some fans were sympathetic to the players, especially those competing at levels below the major league level.

While Timmons was frustrated by what he saw as bickering among billionaires, he also focused on the owners' role in the monthslong negotiations.

"I didn't like them locking them out for no reason at the end of last year and doing what they did," he said. "I thought the owners were being petty, and then you know they don't want to negotiate with the players. I mean, it's just ridiculous."

"I don't begrudge the players more money at all," said Mary O'Connell, a 67-year-old Yankees fan from Las Cruces, New Mexico. "The owners have got tons. I have no concerns about management's poor sob story now."

Major league players were angry that big league payrolls fell from $4.2 billion to $4.05 billion during the five-year labor deal that expired after the 2021 season. The new agreement lifted the major league minimum from $570,500 to $700,000 and devotes a new $50 million bonus pool each year to younger players at the lower range of salaries.

The contract also raised salaries for players on 40-man rosters assigned to the minor leagues, from $46,600 to $57,200 for a first-time contract, but other minor league players aren't represented by the union.

Only 13% of current baseball fans say they followed lockout news "extremely" or "very" closely. Thirty percent said they followed somewhat closely, but 57% said they did not closely follow lockout developments.

Only 8% of baseball fans said the lockout had a major impact on their views of the sport, although another 39% said it had a minor impact. Baseball fans who followed news about the lockout were especially likely to say it had an impact on them, compared with those who didn't, 64% to 34%.

Despite some frustration, the vast majority of baseball fans say they feel at least somewhat excited about and interested in the upcoming season. Fans who followed the lockout closely are especially excited.

"I enjoy just watching the game and don't really focus on the political side of it, management, all that," said Ronald Ellis, a 60-year-old Houston fan from Lake Charles, Louisiana. "I'm excited to see how the Astros will do this year."