Labor unions and sports: It’ll be the fans who suffer

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As illustrated in various businesses over the past century, labor unions tend to serve the short-run interests of their members quite well. But unionized industries and consumers don’t fare so well.

Consider unions and major league sports. The potential exists over the coming two years that consumers — that is, sports fans — will suffer lost games.

In early December, Marvin Miller, former head of the Major League Baseball Players’ Association, fell one vote short of being inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Much outrage followed about Miller, who came up short in previous votes, again being snubbed. But one has to wonder about a labor union boss being worthy of entry into our national pastime’s Hall of Fame.

And an overarching question also lurks: Why is it exactly that baseball players, along with performers in the three other big league sports, need a labor union? Indeed, it’s hard to think of any other private sector industry more unionized than Major League Baseball, the National Football League, the National Hockey League, and the National Basketball Association.

Lots of ink has been spilled over the decades about how poorly MLB players had been treated before Miller. But let’s put this in perspective. These men are not risking their lives, or working under truly gruesome rules or in harsh environments. Instead, while big league sports are big business, they’re getting paid for the privilege of playing a sport — a child’s game — for a living.

Miller led the MLBPA from 1966 to 1983. In his bio on the MLBPA website, he is credited with “transforming the association first into a bona fide labor union then gradually into one of the strongest collective bargaining units in the United States.” The players, of course, love what Miller helped accomplish, including the creation of free agency.

But it’s facetious to argue, as many do, that players would not have gained better pay and benefits without Miller and the union. Nor does it follow that baseball’s growth in revenues were somehow linked to greater union power. After all, most private sector industries in this nation are not unionized, and yet compensation improves along with growing consumer demand and individual performance.

In fact, as the players gained via the union, the big losers turned out to be the fans. While Miller ran the union, baseball fans suffered through three strikes and two lockouts. Post-Miller, another lockout and two more strikes followed. The fans, of course, suffered the most when the players went on strike in 1994, and the World Series was cancelled.

As for the other leagues, the NHL had a 10-day strike in 1992; lost nearly half the season under a lockout in 1994-95; and lost the entire 2004-05 season — the first North American major league sports league to cancel a full season. An NFL players strike in 1982 meant that nearly half the football season was lost, and a 1987 strike led to replacement players for three weeks of the season. And the NBA experienced preseason lockouts in 1995 and 1996, along with a lockout that cut months off the 1998-99 season.

Over the coming 20 months, labor agreements will expire in all four sports.

Major League Baseball’s is up in December. But despite baseball’s tumultuous labor relations in the past, chances for a work stoppage on big league diamonds seem pretty slim. In fact, owners and players appear ready to expand the number of teams reaching the post-season from eight to ten.

The end of the NHL’s contract is farthest away in September 2012, and especially after the lost 2004-05 season, hockey seems the next least likely to suffer a lockout or strike.

With its contract up at the end of June, the NBA and its players, by most reports, are far apart, and the possibility of a work stoppage looks high. The owners are seeking a hard salary cap and revenue sharing that will provide greater competitive balance, as is the case with the NFL.

However, the story for NFL fans looks bleak as well, with the labor agreement up in early March. The NFL Players Association actually features a “Lockout Countdown” on its website. The moves favored by the owners and opposed by the players are an expansion of the season from 16 to 18 games, and a rookie wage scale.

Both, of course, are quite reasonable. Four preseason games are a waste from the fan’s view, and making two of those games meaningful would be a clear plus. Meanwhile, some kind of rookie wage scale would avoid huge dollars going to unproven draftees who can, and often do, turn out to be huge flops.

Make no mistake, if games are lost or delayed due to labor stoppages over the coming two years, the fans — the customers — would again be clear losers, and ultimate fault would lie with the NFL, NBA, NHL and MLB ranking as the most unionized businesses in the nation.

So, given Marvin Miller’s leading role in empowering sports league unions, he most certainly does not deserve entry into the Baseball Hall of Fame — at least from the customer’s viewpoint.

Keating, chief economist for the Small Business & Entrepreneurship Council, can be reached at rkeating@sbecouncil.org.