Sports biz: Collectively speaking, baseball rules

Being a sports fan demands patience. Not just with your team’s performance in down years (that means you, Rockies guy), but with the pull-your-hair-out frustration surrounding labor negotiations that often result in truncated or abandoned seasons.

Such is the case now – at least of this writing – with the National Hockey League, which promised us only six years ago, at the conclusion of a player lockout, that its new collective bargaining agreement would bring about a new “partnership” with players. Instead, with the expiration of that CBA in September, hockey had fallen into tatters again, testing the allegiance of long-time fans. For loyalists, the latest jilt is every bit as heart-wrenching as a relationship gone sour, and just as likely to leave a permanent scar.

Hockey’s sad state closely trailed the National Football League, which appeared to be on the brink of a lost season in 2011, and coincided for a while with an absurd falling-out between the NFL and the union representing its referees. And of course, in the most recent NBA season 12 games were erased from the schedule of the Nuggets and other teams as the league and its players failed to reach a deal before the opening tipoff.

The pattern is painfully common: owners and unions whose ace-in-the-hole is the ability to punish fans who have enormous emotional investment not only in their teams, but in the essential rhythmic movement of life across calendars fixed to sports seasons.

There is one notable exception among the Big Four U.S. professional sports leagues. Major League Baseball has managed to avoid serious carnage tied to labor negotiations for 16 years running now. And with the current CBA locked in for another four years, it appears MLB will make it through 20 straight seasons without the distraction and pain of a divisive labor dispute. The Colorado Rockies may test your patience from time to time, but at least they’ve had a lead-off guy at bat on opening day every year since they joined the league.

I was reminded of this fact last month by an expert in baseball’s labor history, William Gould. The Stanford law professor emeritus was chairman of the National Labor Relations Board in 1995 when he cast the deciding vote to obtain an injunction that would return players to the game after what Gould calls “the mother of all strikes.” Gould’s 2011 book, “Bargaining with Baseball,” traces the league’s labor relations record back to the game’s origins. He talked about it to alums at a Stanford presentation I sat in on last month.

Gould, who grew up playing baseball on makeshift fields in the 1940s, has reverence for the game and its history. But he’s also a fan of structural changes that grew out of the MLB labor accord of the mid-1990s. The “luxury tax” and an associated revenue-sharing scheme designed to buoy small-market clubs have made a positive impact on competitive balance, Gould believes. He says a new and more restrained compensation system for drafted players should guard against teams doubling and tripling up on marquee prospects. And in the bigger picture, Gould thinks baseball’s tremendous economic growth – see this summer’s $7 billion television rights agreement – has bolstered the game. Athletes are better trained, facilities are improved, and the quality of play is better than ever. “This clamor for riches … has been good for the game,” Gould observed.

For a game that lives on hope, baseball offers at least the idea that owners and unions can do a better job. Labor deals don’t have to be just about coming to terms with unions. At their best, they can contribute to a better fan experience and improved competitive balance. That’s the common ground both players and owners ought to keep in mind as they dicker over money – and too often break hearts in the process.