What Can Fans Do If Labor Disputes Take the Games Away?

Labor disputes in professional sports are a fairly common occurrence. Across the past three decades, seven labor disputes -- in MLB, the NFL, the NBA, and the NHL -- have led to the loss of regular season contests. To put that in perspective, workers in sports -- relative to workers in non-sports industries -- are about 25 times more likely to be involved in a strike or lockout.

Given this history, we should not be surprised that labor disputes in basketball and football are once again threatening to take away the games we love. So what can fans do?

In the past fans have threatened to stop going to games if the players walked away. Unfortunately, this threat has proven to be empty. In 1981 Major League Baseball players were on strike for 50 days. But when we compare baseball attendance in 1980 to 1982, we see more fans showed up after the strike. A similar story can be told with respect to both labor disputes in the NHL.

In the NFL and NBA we do see a small decline in attendance after each labor dispute in 1982, 1987, and 1999. But Martin Schmidt and I failed to find a statistically significant drop in attendance. In sum, in six of the seven events we examined (in each of the four major sports) it is clear the fans -- despite what they might say -- couldn't walk away.

Then there is the 1994-95 player strike in baseball. Supposedly this dispute -- which caused baseball to cancel the World Series in 1994 -- almost destroyed the game of baseball. And at first glance it might appear the attendance data confirms this story. Baseball teams averaged 30,977 fans per game in 1993. In 1996 -- the first full season after the dispute -- attendance was only 26,499 per game.

This comparison, though, is misleading. In 1992 the average attendance at a game was 26,530. The 16.5 percent surge from 1992 to 1993 was largest increase since the end of World War II, and can be largely attributed to the Colorado Rockies and Florida Marlins. Each of these teams was an expansion franchise in 1993. And in this initial year the Rockies averaged 54,675 fans per contest (more than 4 million for the season). The Marlins also did well at the gate, attracting nearly 38,000 fans per game (and more than 3 million for the season). As the novelty of expansion wore off, these numbers were bound to decline (and they did). Consequently, comparing 1993 to 1996 is probably incorrect. And when we compare 1996 to 1992, again -- just as we do with the other events we examined -- we see little change in attendance.

Despite this evidence, fans keep making the same threat with each labor dispute. Time and time again fans promise that if the players walk, the fans will walk also. After all, why should fans give their hard earned money to a bunch of millionaire players who can't bother to show up and play a game? Time and time again, though, fans come right back to the games they love.

Can the NBA and NFL count on this happening again if games are taken away? Unfortunately, although I fully expect some fans to threaten to walk away, I also expect fans to come right back if these labor disputes disrupt the regular seasons in these sports.

Certainly the study of past events suggests this prediction. But with a bit of thought we can see why fans behave as we observe. First of all, fans clearly love sports. And when the games go away, fans are unhappy. The only thing fans can do when a labor dispute occurs is to threaten the future revenue streams of the owners (and salaries of the players).

When the dispute is over, though, fans now have a problem. Remember, fans love sports. To carry out the threat would mean the fans are taking an action that reduces their happiness. Although some fans might decide that it is important to keep a promise that leaves them worse off, most fans decide that it is pointless to stay away.

And so the fans come back. With the next labor dispute, though, we go through the same song and dance.
  • Player and owners threaten to leave.
  • Fans threaten to stay away forever if the games go away.
  • Players and owners stop the games anyway.
  • Players and owners come back when they once again resolve how to split the millions the fans are giving them.
  • Fans come back again and enjoy the games they love.

For fans, this entire scenario is frustrating. Unfortunately, there isn't much that fans can do about this. The sports industry has a small number of people arguing about large sums of money. Such arguments are not easy to resolve. As we have seen, resolution often requires that owners and/or players go away. And although fans will threaten to follow this example, it is really hard to carry through with a threat that makes you worse off.