‘Tis the summer of sports discontent, with lockouts in both the NFL and NBA.
Baseball’s labor agreement is also expiring, but without the sense of impending Armageddon of football and basketball. There is no serious talk, much less a push, on the part of ownership to impose a salary cap, no demand for a major restructuring of the sport’s finances.
There are a couple of well-run franchises floundering financially because of stadium and market issues (Oakland and Tampa Bay), and a pair of market behemoths in disarray because ownership is inept at best, fraudulent at worse (Mets and Dodgers).
Those are viewed as individual issues, not structural ones. Neither capital nor labor sees any real gains to be made from a risky altercation. Nor will they so long as there’s institutional memory of the damage done by the 1994 strike.
The highest profile issue emerging from the talks so far appears to be realignment and scheduling.
There is sufficient discontent with the current setup — 16 teams in the National League, 14 in the American, a month essentially set aside for interleague play, six divisions and two wild cards — that significant alterations are at least being talked about.
The current arrangement has worked well for the Twins, who have dominated the American League Central for the past decade. Their division and schedule works in travel and payroll disparities. The same cannot be said for Texas, a Central Time Zone team in a division focused on Pacific Time. Or for the three AL East teams other than the Yankees and Red Sox. Or for the teams in the NL Central, who must climb over five rivals to win their divisional title while nobody else has more than four.
These are structural issues. And they are not easily settled.
Every proposal has drawbacks. Shifting a National League team (the Astros are prominently mentioned) to create two 15-team leagues would require constant interleague play. Eradicating the divisions, returning to a balanced schedule and having the top four (or five) teams make the playoffs would essentially kill the pennant race, raise travel costs and soften important rivalries.
My major concern as the negotiators chew on the details of various proposals is this:
Bud Selig views the schedule primarily as a financial tool. That focus has led to unbalanced schedules, which increase the value of rivalries (good) and to an interleague setup that creates uneven schedules within divisions (bad).
An example, offered less as a complaint than as an illustration: The Brewers are clearly one of the better teams in the National League this year. The Twins played them six times this season; nobody else in the AL Central saw them even once. The Cubs are one of the NL’s worst clubs; the White Sox have six games against them, and nobody else in the AL Central played them.
The schedule is part of the competitive landscape. In a tight race, such disparities matter. A primary focus is on using the schedule to maximize income is unhealthy, and I don’t trust the parties involved in this decision to have the quality of competition in mind.