Do you want sports back?
Because it sure seems like many of you don't.
I'll go on the record: I want sports back today. I'll want them tomorrow, too, because I wanted them yesterday and the day before that.
I'd like to think that if you've made it to this paragraph, you do too.
Yes, I am fully aware that there is a global pandemic happening and that there is risk for players, coaches, trainers, and team staff if we bring back major team sports this summer. Yes, there's risk for media, too (I can't believe I covered some of those final Warriors games – sans mask – before everything went on lockdown.)
But where's the risk for fans?
A reminder: if and when baseball, basketball, and football return to action, you're not going to be invited. And if you are invited, you don't have to go.
No, the likelihood is that we're all going to be sitting at home, on our couches, watching. If Thursday's Washington Post is to be believed, that means I'm part of that group, too.
But wouldn't it be nice to watch a reality TV show that's athletic and in no way scripted? I don't know about you, but I've run out of shows to watch. This pandemic has me excited about NASCAR's return. NASCAR!
What's preventing sports from returning isn't the immediate threats of the pandemic anymore. No, we're past that – the coronavirus isn't going anywhere anytime soon, so all we can do is try to suppress, mitigate and track.
No, the real holdup is actually a legal one. Right now, there's a battle between billionaires and millionaires over money and risk. Or, more specifically, it's a battle between their well-paid and unquestionably distinguished lawyers and representatives.
And given the reaction to Tampa Bay Rays pitcher Blake Snell's comments Thursday, I say we all sit quietly on the couch and let those parties hash things out. They have every incentive to do so.
To be fair, Snell made some solid points amid his argument that he won't take a pay cut to play in this truncated season, noting that the owner's revenue-sharing proposal isn't equivalent to a straightforward 50% payout for 50% of a season.
But he also said: "I gotta get my money... I'm not playing unless I get mine, OK?"
He, of course, is talking about his full $7-plus million salary.
We should all be for employees making as much cash as possible these days – there's not much to go around right now – but the outpouring of support for Snell online (a stupid place to look for meaningful insight, I know), was gross. This guy isn't a labor leader – this isn't some principled stand for the little guy. This was someone saying his multimillion dollar salary "isn't worth it."
The owners had to love that comment.
My bet is that Snell changes his mind when he stops being paid on May 24, when Major League Baseball's salary advance agreement expires. If, after that, he decides that the risk of COVID-19 is strong enough to eschew millions, I'll applaud his principles. I doubt he'll have many people standing alongside him, though.
Talk about "love of the game" and "setting an example" all you want. This all comes down to dollars and cents.
Professional sports leagues are billion-dollar entertainment products, so Major League Baseball, the NBA, and the even the rich-as-hell NFL have to come back ASAP – the ramifications of not returning are financially dire for both the teams that comprise the leagues and the players.
That reality came into focus in the last few weeks. Baseball's owners put forward their proposal for an 81-game season to players. Flawed or not, it was an attempt to get back to making money.
The NBA found momentum to restart the season this week when the players deduced that they were going to start to see their paychecks cut on Friday. Seeing as how the league is run by the players. Thanks to Commissioner Adam Silver's crippling fear to make an unpopular decision, such a rationalization was necessary to get the league playing again.
Meanwhile, the NFL, which has a tremendous advantage of time on its hands, has continued its longstanding practice of ignoring clear health risks in the same way as keeping the cash machine running.
You might have noticed that I have not mentioned the National Hockey League. That's because they don't seem to have a cogent plan to return and not enough people care about the league here in the United States for the media to press Commissioner Gary Bettman about it.
Maybe the NBA, with its big-name players and large national television deal, can weather the storm of a canceled postseason and truncated 2020-21 campaign. Perhaps the NFL has become such a monolith it can never regress. (Not that it would ever consider doing such a thing.)
But Major League Baseball is not in a strong position heading into this labor showdown. And if this season is lost, it increases the already high likelihood that there is a work stoppage after the 2021 season, when the league and players' collective bargaining agreement expires.
That would be a catastrophe for the business. Deny it if you like, but baseball could easily go the way of hockey. It could become a second-tier sport.
Hockey in America was not in a good place before the 2004-05 lockout – which claimed the entire season – and it was only hampered further by the 2012-13 lockout, which claimed half the season.
A legitimate monetary rival of the NBA in my lifetime, at this point, hockey has less cultural relevance in the states than European soccer. It's a regional sport in the U.S., so long as the team in that region is winning. And as of last season, half of the league's teams brought in less than $15 million in operating income, with seven in the red. If those numbers held true this season, it means that most teams didn't have a built-in financial cushion for an event like this. As such, every day the NHL lies dormant, the more likely it becomes that a team – or teams – goes bust.
Baseball teams are – for the most part – in strong positions financially, but its relevance as an entertainment product is stagnant at best and beleaguered at worst. There's a lot of entertainment to be had these days. Yes, the diehards will stick around, but it's the casual fans that bring in the big bucks for sports leagues. The sport has still never recovered from the 1994 players' strike.
So should baseball not play and drop out of the collective consciousness for a summer – or two – I imagine it'll find it exceptionally hard to regain whatever relevance it has now. Like with hockey, casual fans will fade away unless the local nine is amid a playoff run, and the increase in cable cord-cutting and national TV eyeballs will spell doom for the bottom line. And while this might seem like a problem for the owners only, it's important to remember who writes the players' checks.
I've seen the argument made in plenty of places that, now that there's an absence of sports, we don't need them. That's true. They're just games we watch on TV and sometimes (though not for a while, yet) watch in person. They're tremendous entertainment, but hopefully this pandemic has allowed us to differentiate entertainment and necessity. What I do for a living is no more important than those who cover Kim Kardashians latest Instagram post.
But these games are a necessity to some parties: the leagues, the owners, and – whether they want to admit it or not – the players.
As much as they pretend to be public services, they're private businesses. They need the games to start again.
And, for the life of me, I can't see why any fan would want to stop them.
– Dieter Kurtenbach is a sports columnist for the San Jose Mercury News.