Baseball fans blame owners for MLB lockout in new poll. What's driving the shift?

A week ago, MLB canceled the first two series of the regular season as the lockout claimed the first games due to labor strife since the 1994-95 strike. In place of the spring training games that should be happening in early March, baseball has instead been contesting the blame game. Who’s at fault for the work stoppage: Players or owners?

In the surest sign yet of a sea change in public sentiment, a Morning Consult poll released Tuesday suggests fans are far more likely to blame team owners for the work stoppage this time around. The survey found that 45% of self-identified MLB fans thought club owners are more responsible for the failure to reach a deal. Another 34% said they didn’t know or had no opinion, while 21% blamed the players.

That’s reflective, in part, of the simple reality: Franchise owners chose to initiate the lockout minutes after the sport’s outgoing collective bargaining agreement expired, chose to self-impose a series of deadlines for negotiations and chose to axe opening day. (The newest deadline is reportedly Tuesday, after which more games could be canceled.)

It’s also a complete 180 from how fans viewed the strike in 1994-95 and even more recent labor talks that ultimately didn’t result in work stoppages. Consider this timeline:

  • 2002: During CBA negotiations, a Gallup poll found 43% of baseball fans favored the team owners’ side in the talks, where 30% sided with players and 27% had no opinion. A New York Times poll around the same time yielded similar results — 40% favored owners to 27% favoring players.

  • 1994: A CBS News poll during the strike — which players initiated as MLB attempted to introduce a salary cap — found that 47% of fans supported the owners, while 26% backed players.

  • 1981: A poll during that season-splitting strike had support more evenly divided — 28% for players, 27% for owners.

In explaining the results of its poll in 2002, The New York Times interviewed a respondent named Howard Tenke. An Oregon man who owned a fishing-tackle business, Tenke encapsulated a whole generation of dismissive opinions on sports labor battles when he explained why he blamed both sides.

“They are both there to make money — I understand that — but the average person can’t go to a ballgame because between tickets and parking you wind up paying $100,” Tenke said. “Playing ball is basically a kid’s game, and they’re making astronomical money for it. If they were paying teachers what they’re paying ballplayers, people would be lining up to be teachers.”

While it’s true that people would line up for even the $570,500 minimum salary players are trying to improve upon, it misunderstands the entire concept of why professional athletes command higher salaries. You can’t just line anyone up and teach them to be a major-league baseball player. You have to possess an incredible amount of physical ability and then work to develop a similarly prodigious level of skill, and even if you have that you will have only a narrow window of a lifetime to earn money off that talent before aging wipes it away. It also glossed over the fact that people are lining up to play professional baseball — laboring for sub-minimum wages in the minor leagues.

More fans blame team owners for the MLB lockout that has postponed the start of the 2022 baseball season.  (AP Photo/John Bazemore)
More fans blame team owners for the MLB lockout that has postponed the start of the 2022 baseball season. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)

Those attitudes, understandable if misinformed, still exist in 2022, but they’re much harder to hold unchallenged. For instance, the myth of ticket prices being tied to player salaries has been repeatedly dispelled by common sense and in the media. Most recently, Baseball Prospectus writer Rob Mains showed that no correlation existed between payrolls and ticket prices. The implication is obvious: Team owners who set the prices charge the fans what they think will maximize profits, regardless of the team on the field.

That public visibility of ownership’s wealth and motivations has become more common in all spheres. Multibillion-dollar sales of the New York Mets and Los Angeles Dodgers were highly publicized, as was the sale of MLB’s technology and media arm that paid out about $50 million to each team owner.

Broader cultural forces could also be playing a role in the change. In the years since baseball’s last labor conflagration, the conversation around labor and wealth has shifted dramatically. The Occupy Wall Street movement captured America’s attention, and discussion of the 1 percent has become shorthand for the ultra-wealthy in political circles. Sen. Bernie Sanders — who has publicly advocated for the players in this and previous battles with MLB club owners — garnered significant support in runs for the White House. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the congresswoman from New York, both argues for changes in tax policy and makes it a crossover fashion statement.

With the greater visibility and understanding made possible by the internet, at least in this case, has come a greater push for accountability.

The Washington Post noted Tuesday that media coverage around the lockout has directed more ire toward franchise owners than during previous labor skirmishes. And at least part of that trend springs from greater ability and willingness to parse the cases advanced by public figures like Rob Manfred. When the commissioner told Yahoo Sports’ Hannah Keyser that MLB franchises were worse investments than putting a similar amount of money in the stock market, the entire internet had the means to prove that statement false within hours.

Beyond the media's influence, numerous studies have found a general decline in trust in institutions in recent years. It stands to reason that MLB might endure greater skepticism as one of those institutions.

Whatever is behind it, there are now numbers to back up the feeling that players have more public support as the malaise of the MLB lockout snuffs out spring training and threatens the 2022 regular season. That reassessment of power apparent in other arenas of society seems to be taking hold in the context of MLB’s labor talks, too. Even when the workers fighting for their share are already famous athletes.