Government Takeover of America’s Pastime? Not on my Watch.
In fact, a recent New York Times opinion piece called for something so ridiculous that I wasn’t entirely sure if it was serious or parody. The article’s author—Matthew Walther—urged the federal government to nationalize Major League Baseball (MLB), which is an idea so bad that Americans should be crying foul.
The basis of Walther’s thesis boils down to the fact that baseball’s future is in question. As he points out, MLB game attendance has been dwindling since 2008, TV viewership of games is underwhelming, and the average age of such viewers is 57.
The latter is important to note because, while MLB teams may seem flush with cash, much of their income comes from cable TV deals, but younger generations are increasingly eschewing cable TV. They are instead opting for streaming services like Netflix that don’t automatically include sports in their subscriptions—meaning MLB clubs may not be able to depend on the same TV revenue in the future.
This could eventually spell trouble for baseball. “Left to fend for itself,” Walther writes, “the game will eventually disappear.” So, he suggests that the feds ought to take over MLB, and treat it with “the same approbation we reserve for those other neglected cultural treasures.”
According to Walther’s far-fetched plan, taxpayers would be on the hook for paying “absurdly inflated” prices to buy each of the 30 MLB teams; players and coaches would become federal employees; team managers would be elected positions; and C-SPAN would have exclusive rights to televise games.
There’s a lot to unpack in Walther’s proposal, but suffice it to say there are some serious problems. For starters, if matters are as dire as Walther claims, then this would be a terrible investment. Why should taxpayers fund the buyout of a sport if there is no hope of recouping that money? Taxpayers shouldn’t, and we shouldn’t pretend that the government would somehow make baseball better.
The federal government isn’t known for being efficient or altogether effective. The feds haven’t balanced a budget in around 20 years, and government is hampered by hulking bureaucracies and generally mired in some form of gridlock. As such, there’s no reason to believe that the government could competently run a business, like professional baseball.
Moreover, much of baseball’s success stems from the fact that many fans enjoy watching the sport, but that would change with a government takeover. No fan in their right mind has ever thought, “You know what would make baseball more fun? More government involvement!” Rather, permitting the feds to seize MLB, run it as a business and only air games on the less-than-riveting C-SPAN would probably hasten the sport’s demise.
It remains to be seen whether baseball will ever flirt with extinction. Currently, MLB is still able to generate a ton of revenue—even if much of it is from cable TV—and ball clubs are worth a fortune. Forbes estimated the New York Yankees’ value, for instance, at a whopping $6 billion.
Given that many ball clubs have excess cash, it seems as though it should first be incumbent on their owners—not the government—to ensure baseball’s continued success. They have the wealth to address MLB’s shortfalls, and they have the incentive to do so, since it could impact their bottom lines.
In order to reverse some of MLB’s less than desirable trends, the business of baseball may ultimately change as ball clubs compete to stay in business and turn large profits. While I have no idea how this could change the sport, this evolution is not a bad thing. It’s the same process that any successful business goes through in order to remain solvent.
Even if they don’t make the necessary adjustments to account for lost revenue from cable TV deals and flagging attendance, MLB will likely survive. After all, baseball’s beginnings were humble—games were played in smaller stadiums long before TV or radio became household items—and the sport thrived. In fact, baseball wasn’t broadcast on radio or TV until 1921 and 1939, respectively.
A return to some of baseball’s gritty and less commercialized beginnings, when stars like Ty Cobb, shoeless Joe Jackson, and Cy Young trotted around the diamond, sounds appealing. One way or another, I think baseball will survive for many years to come without the government’s help.