A topic that is at the heart of baseball, Major League baseball specifically, is fan loyalty. To some, this may be a nebulous concept, but it’s not actually that hard to pin down and define. That definition doesn’t matter as much as the way that MLB teams treat the concept of fan loyalty. How MLB teams view fan loyalty has become more and more obvious in the past ten years. It’s reached a point where fan loyalty is one of the biggest issues in MLB, even if we don’t talk about it all that much.
The definition of fan loyalty is rooted in the beginnings of MLB. From the onset, MLB existed as two things; a money-making scheme, and a genuine sporting endeavor. Fans have always existed at the intersection of both of those elements. Owners view fans as the means of making money from their business. The competitive aspect of a team is really what brings fans in and keeps them coming back. In that way, fans are both involved with an MLB team making money and with a team succeeding or failing at their given sport. The unwritten rule has always been that as a team cultivates and grows fans they will reward those fans by trying to win and deliver the best baseball product they possibly can.
As we enter the 118th season of MLB fan loyalty finds itself at a crossroads. MLB as an organization has made decision after decision that has driven fans away from their product. Broadcast blackouts, increased attendance fees, and catering to bottom-line interests have eroded the trust between fans and their teams. MLB is no longer the only game around, and it’s lost market space and fandom to other pro leagues and sports for many years. That’s not to say that MLB is going anywhere, but it helps to highlight how ridiculous it is that a league with a dwindling fanbase doesn’t see a lack of fan interest as a problem.
Where does all this leave the common fan? I’m not sure at this point, to be perfectly honest. It’s clear that the landscape of MLB has changed and the idea we have in our heads of the typical fan no longer applies. Fans will still buy team gear, try to attend games, and listen to sports talk radio about their team. Fans want to invest in their team, and teams know that and will continue to make as much money as they can from fans. At the same time, as the actual number of fans drops and MLB teams cater almost exclusively to corporations and luxury spenders the investment from common fans seems more like exploitation by MLB teams than any sort of shared trust.
The other factor is that teams are more willing these days to lose and save money wherever possible. They can get away with this because the fans they do retain keep spending money and supporting the team no matter what. There’s no incentive for the Pittsburgh Pirates to be a winning club when they still turn a profit and fans still support a team not meant to do anything but lose. Without that incentive, fans are being taken for a ride that will never result in their loyalty actually being rewarded.
What makes the fan loyalty situation all the more troubling is that there are simple and easy solutions. Owners need to spend money to make their facilities and teams better. The league needs to make games easier for the common fan to attend and put an end to obstructive and obtuse blackouts. These simple steps would change the image of the league from one that is closed off and “dying” to one that is forging a positive road ahead. Sometime soon MLB and the owners need to start seriously looking at their future before they lose even their most loyal fans. Who knows where MLB will wind up if that ever happens.