The Case for Fan Unions

March 17, 2022
 
The start will be a few individuals – younger than me and fluent in social media and capable enough to put up a website – to get it started.
 
It will start small: a few grassroots efforts to hold events and raise a little capital. Maybe the price of membership will be a dollar a month: for that you get a laminated card to carry in your wallet. Come join our group. We have no idea what we’re doing, but if you’re a member you get to help steer the ship.
 
The start will happen in a few cities: seventy people will gather in Cincinnati, one hundred in Boston, a dozen in Denver. They will not, for a year or two, seem visible to anyone who isn’t paying attention. And then, gradually, they’ll start showing up. Why are the bleachers in right crowded with people wearing the same shirt? Is it some corporate gig? No? What’s that website people keep mentioning. Who are they?
 
In some cities there will be multiple groups, and sometimes there will be factions that splinter apart. Who is the better fan group, the Trolley Dodgers or the MookieManiacs? Some will have tiers of memberships; others will commit to a flat rate. There’ll be infighting.
 
And there will be amazing new voices, new websites, new communities. There will be amazing ideas bouncing around, amazing thoughts finding some traction in the discourse.
 
Eventually, the groups will start aligning themselves. Maybe it will start with partnerships by division: the AL East or California or Texas group. By then, these groups will no longer be invisible. Some teams will understand that they are looking at the future of the sport, and they will work with the groups. Others will bristle at the challenge they represent and work to undermine them. But it will be too late to control it.
 
And at some point, when the next or next-next conflict arises between owners and players, Fan Unions will find themselves stepping into the fray.
 
*            *            *
 
 
There has been a binary underpinning every discussion concerning the labor conflict - recently concluded - in major league baseball. That binary posits that there are two sides to the argument: a small group of billionaire owners who are putting a season at risk, and a larger group of players – some rich and some poor – who want a bigger piece of the profits from professional baseball.
 
Almost every single discussion over the past three months has used that binary as the starting place for every argument. Every tweet, every article, and every statement on baseball’s labor negotiations has grounded their arguments on the notion that there are two sides to the discussion.
 
There are two sides currently at the table, of course: for the duration of the offseason, we’ve mostly been hearing about what the owners want and what the players want. But just because there are two sides currently sitting at the table doesn’t mean that future of negotiations in baseball will always be a battle between owners and players. It is possible that a third group can demand a seat at the table.
 
And it is possible that that third seat will have more influence than we realize.
 
So let’s talk about power. Who has power, in the current labor negotiations in Major League Baseball? What does the power consist of? What is it?
 
Let’s start with the players. Do the players have power?
 
Certainly.
 
One power that the players have is the money owed them. Gerrit Cole is contracted by the Yankees to pitch, and he will receive something absurd amount of money to do that for the next half-dozen seasons. Mike Trout will get his paycheck. Ozzie Albies will get his paycheck. One very evident power that baseball players have is that many of them are contractually obligated great sums of money from baseball teams.
 
And the player’s side has the power of being THE players. They have the power of being Mike Trout and Gerrit Cole and Ozzie Albies. They are the ones the fans want to see. They are the faces of the game, the best-of-the-best.
 
That second power is the one that the players tend to stress the most when they threaten to strike, but I would argue that that power it is a less significant advantage than the average fan realizes. The player say that their names and faces are critically importance to the functioning of a major league, but they are more replaceable than they want any of us to realize.
 
If every major league player were raptured to Valhalla tomorrow, the average fan wouldn’t notice any decline in the quality of play watching Triple-A squads take over major league stadiums. In two or three years, we’d have new stars filling in the gaps left by Trout, Cole, and Albies.
 
They have power now in being Mike Trout or Gerrit Cole, but that strength tends to be overstated: as blasphemous as this is to say, baseball can endure without Mike Trout.
 
In truth, much more of player’s leverage rests in the fact that the very best players would become sunk costs to the teams that owe them millions of dollars. That is to say: while it would be difficult for the owners to replace the draw of a Mike Trout, it is moredifficultfor a team to think about replacing Mike Trout while also paying him the millions of dollars he is owed.
 
Doubtlessly, some of you will wish to argue this point. Don’t, not yet. Let’s keep going. Let’s get to the owners.
 
If the player’s power rests on 1) the big contracts their stars have signed, and 2) the slipperier terrain of their value as the irreplaceable stars, then it must be that the real power in the labor debate rests with those rich oligarch owners, who sip expensive champagne on yachts while dreaming of playoff schemes where every team gets a participation trophy.
 
But – if you think about it enough – the ‘power’ of the owners is on even more dubious ground than the power of the players. After all, Mike Trout gets to collect his money: come hell or high water his dollars are guaranteed.
 
The owners have no such guarantee. Instead, the owners are making a very, very expensive bet. Every year, they are betting that if they put a competent team on the field, and sign free agent X and bring up prospect Y, they will convince people to pay money to see their team play another team.
 
They are betting, too, on the institution of major league baseball as a whole to endure. An owner can decide to tank their roster, and they are insured from ruin because the other major league teams will still come to their park and share in the revenue pools. They are betting that the structures of the game will make them too big to fail, too integral to be allowed to sink.
 
None of that feels like a bet because fans have always shown up. And it doesn’t feel like a bet because we’re told by Forbes or the Wall Street Journal that baseball teams are worth billions of dollars, and owners are worth billions of billions of dollars. We keep hearing this, and we think that it must be true.
 
It isn’t. The owners are making huge bets, every single season. They are not making dumb bets, and they have enough resources to keep a finger on the scale, but they’re making a bet, every single year.
 
They are betting we show up.
 
We. You and I. The fans.
 
Without fans, the owners lose their bet. Without us, the Yankee franchise is worth the land it sits on, and Fenway Park turns into another condo high rise. And without us, Mike Trout turns into an amateur meteorologist with too much uppercut in his swing. If we disappear, we take all of it with us.
 
So who has the power, really?
 
You and I. Baseball fans. There aren’t two sides, but three groups. And we’re the group that has most of the power.
 
Professional baseball would survive without the players. The owners would comfortably find willing replacements to their rosters, and they would figure out how to market new stars, and we’d forget the difference in five years.
 
And professional baseball would survive the absenting of owners. If Major League Baseball disappeared tomorrow, new leagues would crop up from the dusty ground, and fans would gravitate to those new leagues.
 
The only integral part of any of this is us. We, the fans, are the carriers of the light. If we leave, the game leaves with us.
 
Understand: the owners and players do not want us to grasp this. They work very, very hard to make sure we don’t notice this. They panic every time anyone with a voice makes this point, because they know that it is a pulling back of a curtain that both sides have an incentive to keep up.
 
But they cannot maintain the illusion: at some point the fans will catch on. And when it does, it will feel inevitable. When we realize the power we have – when we get our seat at the table - we will only wonder why it has taken so long.
 
*            *            *
 
 
I can’t convince you I’m right, and it is possible that none of this will happen. What I want to communicate, only, is that it can happen. The fans absolutely have the capacity - through collective action - to demand greater accountability from players and owner.
 
So let’s leap forward. Let’s imagine a possible future.
 
Let’s imagine a future where there are thirty robust Fan Unions across the baseball universe. Let’s imagine that the average union has 100,000 voting members, and that their average annual dues are three bucks a month. For that, you’re a voting member: you get to vote on Union objectives and actions.
 
That is an annual revenue of $3.6 million per union. What could a number of individual team’s Fan Union, working collectively, do to influence Major League Baseball?
 
-          They could produce a compelling alternative media outlet, with daily articles and interviews and chatrooms for Union members. They could produce content that is geared exclusively towards fans, content that can be critical of players, MLB, and ownership.
 
-          They could organize targeting actions critiquing teams that aren’t acting in the interests of the fans: blackout dates where they urge fans to boycott games or series. They could coordinate with other Unions to support their boycotts: "The A’s aren’t interested in fielding a good team at home: we’d like to you to not show up when they hit the road."
 
-          Fan Unions could make demands over on ticket prices. They could demand access to seating locations that are currently reserved for the wealthy. They could request foreign-language broadcasts of games. They could request family nights, or discount nights, or reserved seats for lower income families.
 
-          Relatedly, a Fan Union could ask for some degree of fiscal transparency. We’re providing the income: just how much do you take in, and from where, and where does it go? Show us the books.
 
-          A robust fan union could strive to salvage the minor leagues. Collectively, a big enough group of fans could force major league teams to fund and support a specific number of minor league teams. "We’ll support you as a major league team, but you have to fund professional baseball across four or five minor leagues. That’s part of the deal, not just because it benefits you, but because it benefits baseball."
 
-          Fan Unions could operate as intermediaries between players and owners. Imagine a player who wants to stay with the hometown team but is receiving better offers elsewhere. The player could share that information with the public and plead for support from the Fan Union. Alternatively, a strong Fan Union could force teams to get rid of players who fans do not want on their team.
 
-          Relatedly, a very strongand well-organized Fan Union could actually get involved in funding players. We started by imagining 100,000 fans paying $3 dollars a month…but if you change the numbers to 250,000 members paying $10 a month, you’d have a union with an annual income of $30 million dollars. The Union could use some of that money to aid team offers to players.
 
-          Fan Unions could give fans some say in decisions that are currently in the hands of the Commissioner’s Office, which seems intent on tinkering with the structures of baseball without soliciting any tangible feedback from the people who are paying these dollars. Do you want a DH in the NL? Do you want a pitch clock? Do you want a leadoff runner in extra innings? Right now, you don’t have a vote. A Fan Union is one way to get a vote.
 
-          Fan Unions could create an alternative awards system to the current one, and even apply pressure to improve the Hall of Fame. Like the rest of baseball, major awards and the Hall of Fame are controlled by a group that seems more enamored with being moral gatekeepers, and less interested in telling the story that the fans care about. Fan Unions could be a critical ‘challenge’ voice to the BBWAA, and the Hall of Fame leadership.
 
-          Coming at that from a different angle, fans could demand codes of conduct from players, including robust drug testing policies and penalties for rue breakers.
 
-          Fan Unions could prevent cities from losing baseball teams through the capriciousness of an owner’s preference. If the Orioles owners wanted to leave Baltimore, having a capacity to provide a robust negative response to such an idea might be enough to force a sale, instead of a move.
 
-          Robust fan unions could emerge in minor league cities, and cities that want a Major League Team could create aspirational Fan Unions for future franchises, using their membership numbers as an indicator of fiscal commitment to a new team.
 
-          Fan Unions could advocate for younger players who haven’t yet signed lucrative contracts. Like boosters for university sports, fan unions could financially support younger players – and even leagues - with financial contributions.
 
-          And a Fan Union could be a voice for the non-player workers of an organization. I know nothing at all about what it is like to work for a major league team, but the subject interests me immensely. How much does a groundcrew member make? How about an usher? A robust Fan Union could hold ownership accountable not only to players, but to staff. I come to a game to watch Mike Trout, but my experienced is enriched by the person pouring my beer. They should be in the conversation, too.
 
I am sure I am missing a thousand possibilities. And I am equally sure that I am missing a thousand obstacles, a thousand reasons this won’t happen.
 
But Fan Unions would absolutely create a more engaged and dedicated fan base. And they would challenge the status quo of a game that is rapidly becoming top-heavy and unsustainable.
 
I don’t have the talent or energy to start the fire: all I want to do is make a spark. If you’re someone who thinks there’s some glimmer of possibility to what I’m suggesting - if this clicks in your head as something that is possible - go and get it started.
 
I’ll sign on. I’ll pay my dues.  
 
 
David Fleming is a writer living in southwest Virginia. He welcomes comments, questions, and suggestions here and at dfleming1986@yahoo.com. 
 
 

COMMENTS (13 Comments, most recent shown first)

mikewright
This could only be written by someone who has never read a college football message board.
11:53 AM Mar 24th
 
Brock Hanke
I have grave doubts about a lot of this. Didn't the owners actually try to field Scab League Baseball in 1995 or something? And didn't the fans just stay away? Fans won't buy SLB. They do want the real thing.

Also, the idea of a union is that you are organizing employees opposing rapacious employers. The fans are not employees. They are, if anything, owners. They pay everyone's salaries. They can't form a union. Neither can the franchise owners, which is why they don't have one. The power of fans lies exactly where it lies with owners: They pay the bills. They don't receive money. They pay it. Unions don't work for owners. Lockouts do. If you rephrased this as "lockouts for fans" instead of "fans in a union", this idea might work much much better.
7:22 PM Mar 21st
 
spitballer21
One wonders how much NET revenue is generated from the fannies in the seats compared to the TV / advertising revenue. It might not make enough of a difference if fans didn’t show up at games in the short term, and the TV contracts would be a longer term squeeze. Either way, the owners Financial books aren’t ever open enough to know the answer, which undermines the power that any fan union Might have. And I’d Gladly pay my dues anyway.
8:27 PM Mar 18th
 
evanecurb
When the “Post” command doesn’t respond, click it again. That’s how I roll.
11:01 AM Mar 18th
 
DaveFleming
Well that's me out: I don't have half the charisma of a Jimmy Hoffa. On the plus side, I'm probably not going to get whacked by the mob.

I do think there are smaller collective actions that could impact the game. If fan unions had an organized press that was filling in the vacuum left by declines in the newspaper readership, they could pull off something like an 'everyone wear black' event, where some percentage of fans would be wearing black in the stands. There are smaller visual actions which - if coordinated with a robust social media platform - could have impacts.

It does require a critical mass. On the other hand, a Fan Union has the potential to offer members a real stake in the game. The owners/MLB don't want to give fans that, and the players don't want to give fans that. The fans have to take it.


10:28 AM Mar 18th
 
evanecurb
Any idea like this needs a charismatic leader, like Jimmy Hoffa of John L Lewis.
10:05 AM Mar 18th
 
evanecurb
Any idea like this needs a charismatic leader, like Jimmy Hoffa of John L Lewis.
10:05 AM Mar 18th
 
evanecurb
Any idea like this needs a charismatic leader, like Jimmy Hoffa of John L Lewis.
10:05 AM Mar 18th
 
evanecurb
Any idea like this needs a charismatic leader, like Jimmy Hoffa of John L Lewis.
10:05 AM Mar 18th
 
malbuff
"The public is fickle, has many diverse interests thus negating large, effective boycotts."

True. But that's not what's being proposed here. The proper word is not "boycott," it is "strike." The difference between a boycott and a strike is organization and focus. This would be an organization appealing to its members, not to the public at large, and with a local or regional focus. Of course the particular fan union would have to be large enough before this could happen; an effective fan strike is a long way down the road. That's a given.

But there's a semantic difference at work here too, part of the ongoing media narrative: strikes are for professionals, boycotts are for amateurs. And we fans are amateurs, aren't we? This aligns with the attitude some foolish sportswriters were promoting lately: "the players are the game" garbage. I'm glad some of us recognize this is a lie. Maybe we could also recognize that, amateurs though we are, we have the latent power needed to go on strike.

And some of us may also remember a "boycott" that worked: the Montgomery, Alabama, "bus boycott" of 1956. Except it wasn't a "boycott." It was a strike. A large number of customers effectively formed a union and went on strike. And it worked. It disrupted the narrative, so it had to be given a less intimidating name, but it was a strike.

Never say never. In time, with enough people, this could happen.
9:31 AM Mar 18th
 
FrankD
Interesting. A fan union is possible but very difficult to get going. Let's look at a kind of corollary : boycotts of products/companies. Some boycotts work but I think most don't. Now if the product is faulty and/or has very bad press then boycott/fan staying away is effective, look at Chipolte. But even Chipolte has made a comeback. And MLB got a whiff of fan boycott when they moved All-Star game out of Atlanta for political reasons, MLB did not want to re-open can of worms that moving WS out of Atlanta would have created. So, that time fan revolt got some what of a response from MLB. But look at all the products Unions tell their employees to boycott. Or even some state setting up boycotts of other states where boycotting state doesn't like the politics of the other states. These boycotts seem to have little effect. The public is fickle, has many diverse interests thus negating large, effective boycotts. My guess is it won't be a fan revolt that kills or changes baseball, baseball will screw itself and not recognize when its milk cows (the fans) have left the barn. Then the hew and cry of repentant MLB players and owners will resound across the land to fall on deaf ears of fans who've moved on to other entertainment.
7:10 AM Mar 18th
 
Anyone
I think it would be great if something like this could work, but I doubt it could.

The main fans' union leverage would be the threat to boycott. Bill James has written several times on this site about why boycotts of anything usually fail.

The basis, with baseball, and similarly with other products, is that teams only need a small percentage of the people interested in baseball in a given market to show up.

The one way it could work is if the number of potential fans in a market who opposed the fans' union was near zero.

Otherwise, if you can get one third of the fans to abide by a boycott- which I think is the highest possible, but then 1 in 100 potential fans, many of whom would normally just watch games on TV, opposed the fans' union concept enough to make a point to buy tickets to oppose a boycott. the team might gain attendance.

There are a lot of people with interest in baseball that very rarely or never buy tickets to go to games. If one third of the fans who would attend a game stay home, but 1 in 100 who wouldn't attend the game buy tickets, the ratio of those who'd stay home and watch on TV to those who go to the game, I have to imagine is at least 33 to 1.

If one could actually work it so that no baseball fans opposed the fans' union it could work, as driving attendance down by 1/3 is significant enough to have some leverage. The fans' union could of course also offer "carrots" and not only the "stick" of a boycott, but I don't see those having a huge influence.

I hope I'm wrong, because I'd love to see this happen. Fans right now have, not per fan but as a group because of our numbers, the most at stake in how baseball is run, but the least say in how it is run. t would be very good to change that. But II doubt it can work.
5:02 PM Mar 17th
 
kseesar1
Dave,

I love this idea, and have been thinking about it in one way or another for years. I've always felt we were at the mercy of players and owners, but your plea for a union is a brilliant one. I'm already an executive director for my teacher's union. I'd love to be a part of something like this from the ground floor. Count me in.

Matt
2:40 PM Mar 17th
 
 
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