When Cubs chairman Tom Ricketts or any other baseball owner claims publicly they’d be better off financially by not playing a 2020 season at all rather than accept some of the players’ terms, don’t fall for it.
That’s because whatever the short-term hit — and for teams such as the Cubs it might well be substantial — the long-term damage to the sport from skipping a season over financial negotiations during a global pandemic could be “catastrophic,” according to at least one sports economist.
In fact, baseball might face more dire consequences in recouping fan interest and financial losses than its major-league sports counterparts for several reasons.
Baseball, like many industries, faces a potentially weak economy in general for the next couple of years because the impact of the COVID-19 crisis as it tries to rebound after a year of losses, regardless, noted sports economist Andrew Zimbalist said.
And sports could be further impacted by coronavirus fallout related to how many fans are allowed to gather in stadiums even by next year, and how many will be willing to do so.
But even beyond that, baseball could face a unique challenge compared to the other sports, Zimbalist said, if a season isn’t played because decades-long animus between owners and players cause these negotiations to break down.
“Especially during a time when most of America is suffering and baseball players have an average salary of almost $5 million, and owners of course are sitting on assets that are generally worth $1 billion and more, people don’t want to hear about squabbles between those two groups,” said Zimbalist, the longtime economics professor at Smith College who has published more than a dozen books on the economics of baseball and other sports.
Look no further than what happened after the 1994-95 strike and lockout, he said, when the full-season attendance equivalent in the 1995 return season represented more than a 20 percent decline from 1993.
“I would expect a similar impact now but the impact compounded for two reasons,” he said. “The economic situation [at large] is not as auspicious, and, two, all of this is happening during a pandemic when really everybody is suffering. It’s harder to understand or accept the owners and the players battling this out during a period of generalized depression and anxiety.”
Common sense? Sure. Most of us recognize the risk owners and players take anytime the millionaire-vs.-billionaire fight is waged publicly, especially at a time of such health, economic and social gravity, including the protests and unrest since the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police on Memorial Day.
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But if baseball expects to rebound from a season missed because of money matters following a decade of record revenues and enormous gains in franchise values, then it might want to consider long and hard what the means for doing that will be.
Ricketts told ESPN on Tuesday that “the scale of losses across the league is biblical.”
Nobody disputes teams are dealing with almost zero revenue during the pandemic shutdown or the likelihood of a season of any length resulting in steep losses, especially without fans allowed in stadiums. The Cubs have been hit especially hard by the timing of the shutdown because it coincides with costs associated with the launch of their new TV network.
Ricketts told ESPN the teams and league don’t have “a pile” of cash from recent seasons of record industry revenues, because, he said, teams put that money back into their teams, including payrolls.
“No one expects to have to draw down on the reserves from the past,” Ricketts said. "Every team has to figure out a way to plug the hole.”
That would seem to make an offer by the union to defer a percentage of salaries a viable solution in negotiations. But Zimbalist said that while some teams might have a cash-flow problem, he doesn’t believe the league or teams generally face that issue — rendering deferrals with interest of “minimal value.”
Whatever it takes to close the gap in negotiations, that ticking baseball is hearing could start sounding a lot more like a detonation device than a clock before long.
If they cancel the season and try to dig out later, there’s no Cal Ripken Jr. consecutive-games streak just waiting to resume and provide a made-for-TV, record-setting moment.
Not only are there no Sammy Sosas and Mark McGwires on the visible horizon, but even that boost of interest to the game in 1998 turned a few years later into one if its biggest scandals.
And this, perhaps most of all: The average baseball fan is a white guy in his 50s — the game’s core consumer is aging out fast with the generations behind him too often showing indifference to an increasingly slow-paced game with decreasing action and more strikeouts than hits.
“A greater sensitivity of fan response in part because of shifting culture across the generations? I think that’s true,” said Zimbalist, who includes in that the increasing choices and popularity of video games.
“Baseball’s status as a national pastime is certainly being challenged,” he said. “Those elements will certainly complicate baseball’s effort to rejuvenate their fan base if they don’t come back.
“The other side of the coin,” he added, “is if they do come back and play baseball this summer, when people are basically starving for sports, there’s potentially an opportunity to extend its allure to more and more people and generate a level of passion and avidity that baseball hasn’t seen in a while.
"There’s a wonderful opportunity awaiting them if they can get their act together, and there’s an almost catastrophic result if they can’t. … I think both sides are fully aware of that.”
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