Fans won't strike back they always return for more

August 01, 1994|By JOHN STEADMAN

Baseball's paying customers, as incongruous as it seems, have failed themselves. As a result, they are ready to fall into a deep depression over the prospect of the season being taken away from them because the players and team owners can't negotiate a labor agreement.

Do we, the fans, have ourselves to blame? Ponder what has transpired in the history of the grand old game.

The current strike deadline for the players walking, not to first base but out of the ballpark, has been established. It's Aug. 12. The baseball "plantation" owners won't budge. Neither will their "slaves." In all the turmoil, there's ongoing sympathy expressed for the group that feels woefully neglected -- the ticket-buying public.

This is understandable because the fans don't have a voice in the matter. At the same time, John and Jane Q. Public must stop to realize, as consumers, they had previous chances and the power to bring baseball owners and players to their collective senses . . . and failed. The spectators didn't take advantage of the only "weapon" at their command. All they had to do was stay home in protest after play was resumed. But that never evolved.

As a "pay-back" to the players/owners for what the fans perceived as an insult, they quickly returned in record numbers. For eight straight years, following the 1981 strike, as the major leagues took on a bush-league concept by reducing the pennant races to a split-season format, the rejected ticket buyers contributed to new highs in attendance.

What this tells you is baseball fans have short memories and are quick to forgive the players and owners for what they perceive as lack of consideration. It'll most assuredly be that way again if the present strike threat becomes reality. Fans scream they'll "swear off" going to games but yet have always returned -- in greater numbers than before.

It's naive to consider the baseball industry a sport, despite what the Supreme Court decreed in 1922. The game is a business the same as a newspaper, steel mill, packing house or grocery store.

Forget about baseball being a so-called "sacred trust." To believe that borders on heresy. Total fiction. Although fans express resentment over a stoppage, be it a walkout by players or a lockout by owners, they never make their threats to stay away come to reality when the games resume. Why?

It's because, unknowingly or not, there's such a thing as baseball addiction. Fans thrill so much to the game they %J eventually are willing to accept what they perceive as indignities and insults. It's as if they're pleading for the players and owners ,, to "do it to me again" because all will be forgiven when baseball returns.

Fan groups are again forming to protest the treatment they are receiving from those responsible for a pending strike. It sounds good; that's all. An organization known as "Fans First" in Cleveland is talking boycott and two others in New York have similar agendas.

But it won't work because patrons' anger quickly subsides when the parks reopen, even if the fans insist they'll never pay to watch another game. Ho-hum.

In truth, they like baseball so much such threats constitute mere rhetoric. Fans respond by lining the pockets of the owners and players with added revenue as they storm the box office for tickets. Owners and players, instead of hurting financially, become the beneficiaries of increased revenues from increased gate receipts and radio-TV fees -- courtesy of the fans, who make it all possible.

Let's hearken back to 1980, the year before baseball's most prolonged shutdown. A total of 43,014,136 went to American and National Leagues games. Then in '81, when the Major League Baseball Players Association, challenged by management, took a hike, the count suffered appreciably -- dropping to 26,544,376 for a partial schedule.

In quick order, though, the season of 1982 jumped to a record 44,587,874. For the next seven years, crowds accelerated annually to new heights. Last year, after expansion to Miami and Denver, major-league totals hit an awesome 70,256,459.

Ticket buyers continue to lament their plight. They have it in the power of their pocketbooks to put an end to strikes, not the kind thrown from 60 feet, 6 inches but what's known in labor-management language as a "work stoppage." However, you only need check the records to see how a suspension of the schedule has had absolutely no influence on subsequent attendance.

Fans react, despite what you may think, by expressing an insatiable desire to buy tickets. This is the signal to owners and players that what pain they've inflicted meets with their consummate approval.

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