The Weekly Mailbag: Players vs. Owners
Thank you to those of you who reached out over the last week to the mailbag. I know we don’t have much in the way of new baseball news, so it’s always good to see some emails come into the inbox. As always, if you want to send in a question for the Weekly Mailbag, email me at SSTNReadermail@gmail.com, or click the “SSTN Mailbag” button on the right side of the home page.
All of the questions I received in the mailbag and from friends and family this week center around two questions: When will Major League Baseball come back? Who is right – the owners, or the players? I’ll answer both of these questions, and think about what baseball might look like when it returns below. Before I get started, our own Ed Botti also posted his thoughts on the ongoing labor dispute this morning – I highly recommend that you check that out as well.
Context is essential in understanding the contentious negotiations around returning to play MLB games in 2020. Many baseball observers saw a storm on the horizon going back to last year. The MLBPA leadership has consistently allowed MLB owners to chip away at revenue players could earn through negotiations in the last decade or so. Most of the new measures of cost control hurt players that were not members of the MLBPA, but would later become members as they graduated to the Majors. Among some of the most obvious measures agreed to: the graduated luxury tax which has acted as a soft salary cap; bonus pools for the Rule 4 (first-year player) Draft, penalizing teams that exceed those pools by even relatively minimal margins; and International Bonus Pool limits for which there are significant penalties for exceeding. All of these policies help to suppress the salaries of players from the minors through the primes of their careers, while conferring a significant cost savings to ownership. All of this occurred against the backdrop of a major influx of cash for most MLB owners in the form of lucrative regional TV contracts.
Prior to the start of Spring Training in 2020, there were significant rumblings that the MLBPA was going to begin to push back against some of MLB’s policies and new demands as part of negotiations over the CBA set to expire at the end of 2020. The players have finally noticed that the owners have taken a much higher percentage of the revenue pie over the last decade and change, and had their sights set on numerous policies that suppress player earnings. For instance, there were significant rumblings about the players wanting changes to the current system in which players are controlled by a team for 6-7 years prior to attaining Free Agent status. That is just one of numerous examples that were set to be on the table this winter.
The international pandemic has changed the calculus, and the arguments you see today as MLB tries to get a season together are largely a manifestation of labor dispute that was coming at the end of 2020. With that reality as a backdrop, it becomes far easier to understand why the negotiations have become so contentious.
Negotiations broke down relatively early. While MLB and the MLBPA came to an agreement in March to both delay the season and prorate players’ salaries based on the number of games played, MLB sought to immediately renegotiate that agreement as they tried to set-up a shortened season. MLB has chosen to largely negotiate through the media, as we know of only one formal proposal that has been sent to the MLBPA for consideration. MLB leaked their supposed revenue loss figures from playing games without fans in the stands, in addition to the losses sustained without any baseball. MLB also recently leaked their plan to pay players their “full” prorated salaries, but over a much shorter 50-game season. Again, this was not a formal offer, but a leak to the media to gauge PR.
As to the question of who is right, I’m just one person, but in context, I find it hard to side with MLB. Everything MLB has done in recent seasons has pushed the average fan from being able to attend games at their team’s ballparks. Between TV revenues and corporate sponsorship to the crackdown on celebrations, the message to fans has implicitly been that owners don’t care if average fans are in the stands. To now cry poverty after over a decade of unparalleled prosperity and blame at least some of it on playing games without fans is hypocritical, to say the least. I know that the perception is that we are still talking about millionaires and billionaires talking about how many millions they take home at the end of the day, but the context of these negotiations are essential to keep in mind. If I put myself in the players’ shoes, I don’t think I would be interested in anything I’ve seen to-date from MLB. Also keep in mind: it is the players (along with team support staff, coaches, trainers, etc.) who bear the burden of risk here. MLB owners knew what losses they might sustain when they signed the March agreement; they signed it anyway. To renegotiate the financial aspect of that agreement now in the context of baseball’s economics smells foul to me.
Of course, the part of this equation that’s most important to me is the return of MLB baseball. As of right now, I’m more pessimistic than I’ve ever been about that happening anytime soon. The longer this drags on, the fewer games teams can play. I actually agree with MLB’s stance that it doesn’t want the season to extend beyond October. That means that MLB and the MLBPA is running out of time. MLB can impose a season of any length based on the terms of the March agreement, and it appears that they may do just that. A short season is better than no season, but many players may refuse to play under those circumstances. I still think that there will be baseball of some kind beginning in mid-July, but I have no idea what it will look like. In any event, I miss baseball, and I hope the two sides can find a way to bridge the gap soon.