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Do Baseball’s Labor Fights Drive Fans Away?

As Major League Baseball’s owners and players struggle to come to terms for a pandemic-shortened 2020 season with the prospect of a work stoppage next year looming, it’s hard not to think about the last labor disruption in the sport. The 1994-95 strike enraged fans, many of whom vowed never to attend a game again. So great was the perceived public relations damage that, in retrospect, some believe that a historic home run race (albeit tainted by performance-enhancing drugs) between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa was needed to save the sport and recapture fans.

There are plenty of people sounding the alarm now: MLB could end up tarnishing its image again, pushing people away from the national pastime. But that concern might actually be overblown. If history is any guide, a labor dispute isn’t likely to dampen enthusiasm for the game for long. In the past, fans have returned — and often quickly.

There have been eight work stoppages in MLB history, three of which resulted in games lost: 1972 (86 games), 1981 (712 games) and 1994-95 (921 games). While average regular-season attendance slumped in those shortened seasons, it quickly recovered to pre-stoppage levels, eventually exceeding those levels to set new records.

The 1972 stoppage, the first strike in history, was fought over players demanding increased pension funds. The stoppage was confined to that one season, and only two weeks of games were missed. Average attendance per game dropped by 3.7 percent from the previous year, but it picked back up again the following season, increasing by 6.8 percent over 1972 numbers and 2.9 percent over the pre-strike season of 1971. In 1981, the stoppage spanned nearly two months and resulted in a split season, with MLB returning to play at the All-Star Game, pushed back to August and attended by 72,000 fans in Cleveland. In-season attendance declined by 6.8 percent, but attendance the next year grew by 11.1 percent and was 3.6 percent higher than the 1980 season.

The ramifications were more severe for the 1994-95 strike, which pushed back the start of the 1995 season by 23 days. Before the strike, the 1994 season had set an attendance record of 31,256 fans per game. That plummeted by 20 percent in 1995, and though attendance increased by 6 percent in the 1996 season — and grew year-over-year in four of the five subsequent seasons — 1996’s numbers were still 15.2 percent below that 1994 high-water mark, which would not be eclipsed until 2006. But despite that, attendance had rebounded to levels from earlier in the decade, and 1997 — the year before Sosa and McGwire gave baseball their great home run chasebested Roger Maris’s record of 61 homers.

">1 — saw the third-highest average on record at that time.

And though television ratings for the World Series have been declining for decades, 4 million more people watched the post-strike 1995 World Series, in which the Atlanta Braves beat the Cleveland Indians, than the pre-strike 1993 Series between the Toronto Blue Jays and Philadelphia Phillies.

Fans weren’t likely to attend games in a shortened 2020 season anyway because of COVID-19 concerns. And even without labor stoppages or a pandemic, baseball was facing an attendance decline (along with several other sports). But broadcast dollars had filled in the difference and then some: regional sports networks continued to post strong in-market ratings in 2019. Past labor stoppages suggest that MLB would likely see a hit in the short term but eventually recover. History suggests that when there are games, people will watch — no matter how long team owners and players make them wait.

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  1. Attendance increased in 1998 during the race, but it declined slightly in 1999, after McGwire and Sosa had both bested Roger Maris’s record of 61 homers.

Travis Sawchik is a former sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.