Will there be a baseball fan in 2021?

SportsMoneyAs MLB Lockout Prepares To Enter Third Month, Baseballs Popularity Wanes FurtherJared WyllysContributorOpinions expressed by Forbes Contributors are their own.I write ab

Will there be a baseball fan in 2021?

SportsMoney

As MLB Lockout Prepares To Enter Third Month, Baseballs Popularity Wanes FurtherJared WyllysContributorOpinions expressed by Forbes Contributors are their own.I write about baseball with a focus on the Cubs and White Sox.Jan 31, 2022,09:15am EST|

NEW YORK, NY - OCTOBER 03: Major League Baseball [+][-]Commissioner Robert D. Manfred Jr. looks on prior to the American League Wild Card Game between the Minnesota Twins and the New York Yankees at Yankee Stadium on October 3, 2017 in the Bronx borough of New York City. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)Getty Images

February is typically the most hopeful month in the baseball season. In most parts of the country, its still cold and theres still a lot of snow on the ground, but watching teams load up to head south for spring training reminds us that spring is getting close.

But not this year.

Normally at this point we would be just a couple of weeks from seeing pitchers and catchers report to Arizona and Florida, but instead we have a lockout to enjoy.

Since the lockout began on December 2 when the current collective bargaining agreement between owners and players expired, the two sides have met only a handful of times. And the nuggets that have emerged from those meetings have not been encouraging.

The question at this point probably isnt whether baseball starts on time, but instead how long opening day gets delayed. Mothers Day is a beautiful time of year, but baseball fans shouldnt have to wait that long to kick off the season.MORE FROMFORBES ADVISOR

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To have this playing out in Major League Baseball while the NFL has provided back-to-back weekends of thrilling playoff football should be the wakeup call that pushes labor negotiations along, if for no other reason than the growing problem of baseballs declining popularity.

The sport still makes plenty of money. They enjoyed $10.7 billion in total revenue in 2019, and indications are that 2021 was a bounceback year after the pandemic-shortened season. And fans are still coming to the ballpark. Even with attendance limitations in place for much of the 2021 season, six different teams welcomed over two million spectators last year.

But there are plenty of signs that baseball needs a significant boost in popularity. Television viewership in 2021 was down 12% from 2019, and the average age of baseball fans is 57. Thats much older than any of the other major sports (the NBAs average is just 42), and baseballs fans are getting older year by year. The average age in 2006 was 52.

Losing most of the 2020 season was unavoidable, and MLB deserves credit for putting together a workable plan to allow the season to happen at all. And last year they were able to play most of the season with capacity crowds around the league  a good sign that fans are willing to come back even as Covid-19 still looms.

A labor-related stoppage would only squelch any chance at fully recovering from the losses of the last two years, however. Owners chose in December to lock out the players rather than continue under the terms of the old collective bargaining agreement until a new one is reached. They had that option, but didnt take it. So the responsibility to approach negotiations with a more open mind falls to them. As the de facto caretakers of the sports legacy  a role they choose wittingly or not when they buy a team  one would hope that they would be more careful to not preside over its demise.

When MLB last lost games to a work stoppage in 1994 and early 1995, it took the PED-laced exploits of more than a few players (and the turned eye of the commissioner) to help bring the fans back. The same players that too many Hall of Fame voters are now happy to leave off of their ballots. If we lose games in 2022, its hard to guess at what it would take to revive interest in a sport thats already struggling to maintain it.

Yes, baseball has been dying since it began, but at some point maybe the sky really is falling.

As of last week, the two sides were still rather far apart. The main sticking points for owners are revenue sharing and salary arbitration eligibility. Players have been less specific in their desires, but the two main concerns seem to be competitiveness and the earning potential of younger players. Everyone benefits if more teams are working to be competitive, except owners who treat their teams as part of an investment portfolio rather than a source of entertainment and a community cornerstone.

Ultimately, the sense of urgency to get a deal done needs to increase. Baseball is becoming less popular, even without losing all or part of the 2022 season. Fans are getting older, and not as many of them are tuning in to watch games on TV. More than one of the other major sports have already passed baseball by. The NBA and NFL, in particular, have more fans, and their fanbase is younger. So any chance for baseball to maintain popularity or cultural relevance, two things that greatly help secure its future, will get closer to slipping away if February comes and goes without hope of a normal 2022 season.Get the best of Forbesto your inbox with the latest insights from experts across the globe.Follow me onTwitter.Jared WyllysRead MoreRead LessEditorial StandardsCorrectionsReprints & PermissionsLoading ...

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