(For transparency: where my interests lie.)
Seven weeks after what should have been the beginning of the 2020 MLB season, there is now a reasonably detailed road map for to play a shortened version of it.
The plan right now is to have shortened spring training starting in June, leading up to the season starting in early July. The games would be played without fans (at least to begin with), and could be played either in the home stadiums, or if that can’t work because of local restrictions, then in neutral locations. The season is tentatively set at 82 games, though that too could change. Teams would only be playing teams in their division and the teams in the other league that correspond geographically. For instance, the Indians would play their AL Central rivals and the teams in the NL Central. At the end of the season would be an expanded playoffs, with the goal of ending at the normal time (late October/early November).
All of this is dependent on a couple things. First, that effective precautions can be put in place to minimize risk to the players, coaches, and other people who are necessary to put on the games. And second, that an agreement be reached between the players and the owners to split a smaller revenue pie that will be made even smaller if teams can’t sell tickets.
The first stipulation should not be contentious. Neither the owners nor the players want an outbreak to happen within a clubhouse, and judging by the details (The Athletic, $) that have reached the public, these concerns seem to have been taken seriously. Testing would be done often, using “the least invasive and fastest methods commercially available without adversely impacting public health needs,” temperatures would be taken twice daily, and family members would also have access to testing, etc. An almost comical set of guidelines would also preclude close contact off the field, including no fist-bumping, no showers, and no spitting (just to name a few). Thankfully, there are very few instances during play in which two or more people are close to each other (catcher/hitter/umpire, first baseman/runner) so little if anything will change to how the game itself is played. The only outstanding issue regarding player safety I see coming up is how at-risk players would be handled financially if they didn’t want to play, and who could be considered at-risk. But I don’t think that would sink an agreement.
The second stipulation is more intractable. The owners and players came to an agreement in late March, shortly after Spring Training was cut short, in which the players would be paid based on the number of games played in 2020, and if there were no games played at all, they would be paid a total of $170M. In return, all players on the major-league roster would receive a full year of service time regardless of what would happen. In other words, if the season is 82 games, all players would be paid roughly half of their original salary, but if they were a year away from free agency, they would be eligible for it at the end of the season.
However, because in most of the country bans on mass gatherings remain and are likely to continue for a while, that means teams will be without a significant portion of their revenue if games are played without fans. And so the owners have made another proposal to the players to pay them 50% of the total revenue made during the shortened season rather than 50% of their original contracts. This is a non-starter to the players, who view any attempt to base salaries on revenue as tantamount to a salary cap. MLBPA president Tony Clark said this back in April, when the issue was first brought up:
“Players recently reached an agreement with Major League Baseball that outlines economic terms for resumption of play, which included significant salary adjustments and a number of other compromises. That negotiation is over,” union head Tony Clark said in a statement Monday.
As Jeff Passan reports, there is a clause in the March 2020 agreement that can be interpreted as requiring a separate negotiation in case the games could not be played in front of fans or had to be played in neutral locations:
That said, on Page 1 of the agreement, the first point of the Resumption of Play section includes the words: "(T)he 2020 championship season shall not be commenced unless and until each of the following conditions is satisfied." One of those conditions ends with: "(T)he Office of the Commissioner and Players Association will discuss in good faith the economic feasibility of playing games in the absence of spectators or at appropriate substitute neutral sites."
However that interpretation is not shared by the MLBPA, who feels that financial negotiations were completed in March, and so you have this standoff. That we’re even getting the details of these arguments (including a detailed accounting of how much each club is projected to lose if games are played in empty stadiums) is an indication of how far apart the owners and players are on this point. Now the negotiations will be held both in conference rooms and in the public, and both sides are hoping to garner enough public support to improve their negotiating position.
Given all this, I think it is crucial to understand the current sports media environment. Various media outlets and commentators are going to ramp up the rhetoric even more than usual in this now public financial negotiation, because unlike in previous negotiations, in which the two sides were divvying up a consistently growing pie of revenue, this time they will be fighting over a smaller pie. Most outlets have picked a side in this ongoing conflict, and because of that their coverage is slanted in one way or another. This is not a new phenomenon, but it has of recent years become more transparent as the economics of the industry has changed. No longer do most media outlets even try to attract a broad readership because the paradigm demands they sell their product (via Internet advertising) to a core base who will only countenance reading articles that reinforces their worldviews AND to readers of the opposing base who read the articles only to rail against them (aka hate clicks). There has always been media organizations with ideological agendas, but now the current paradigm states is that it is more profitable to operate a site with one. I disagree with that, especially in the long term, but that is what the media corporations, who don’t tend to prioritize things like public trust and long-term viability when next month’s traffic report is just a week away, think will keep them afloat in an era where a single person with an Internet connection can theoretically have the same amount of influence as the largest organizations on the planet.
So expect lots of over-the-top rhetoric. Expect documents and quotes that normally wouldn’t see the light of day in a good faith negotiation to be freely distributed to friendly media sources (as already has been done). Expect copious emotional arguments that reference the ongoing pandemic to try to sway you to one side or the other. Expect more Twitter outrage than usual, if that’s even possible. My advice is to ignore all of it, go do something else, and only re-engage when there’s an agreement to re-start the season. That’s what I plan to do here, so expect nothing but non-baseball posts until an agreement happens, whether it’s tomorrow or next year.
Ultimately this is a conflict that should be solved in (virtual) meeting rooms and not in the public sphere, because the players and owners have the most to lose. If no season is played, they will have thrown away a massive opportunity with all the other team sports sidelined until at least the fall to dominate live sports, and more importantly regain mental real estate in the minds of current and potential customers (fans). Fans just lose something to do in their spare time, while the owners and players lose their livelihoods.
If you break the habits of fans that for generations have gotten used to turning the game on every night during the summer months, you’ll lose a significant portion of them when you do return. Baseball is just one of many entertainment options now, and something will fill that gap if it’s not available. Think of the lingering financial effects of the 1994 work stoppage, and consider that was well before most people had access to the Internet, never mind video streaming or other related entertainment industries that didn’t exist back then.
So my response to this PR offensive by the players and owners is this: stop leaking your arguments to the public, stop wasting time engineering your narratives, and start figuring out how to make a season happen safely.
Update (5-25-2020): Here’s one of my comments at LGT, which repeats much of the above, though a bit more to the point:
Agree completely. Now that these positions are staked out in the open, it only makes it harder to retreat from them. It’s obvious that the parties are trying to get their negotiating arguments out into the public (via their media mouthpieces) in the hopes of getting some kind of leverage if one side or the other gains the public support. IMO this is a colossal mistake, as the vast majority of MLB fans have way more important issues to work through right now rather than to take sides in a labor dispute in an entertainment (read: non-essential) industry. The good news, if there is any, is that the longer this floor show goes on, the more money is lost, so they have an incentive to settle quickly. Based on the proposed schedule, they need to have some kind of agreement by early June at the latest. For every week of delay after that, that’s another week of games lost, and the more you alienate the fans you are trying to court. Think about the fans who have for generations gotten into the habit of turning on the game every evening in the summer. Already MLB is going to have to re-aquire those fans because they will have cancelled half a season, but they have a great opportunity to do so because every other team sport is sidelined. MLB should be the first one back because of how the game itself is structured (it’s not a contact sport, unlike the NFL, and to a lesser degree, the NBA and NHL). But if they screw this up, and MLB is the last team sport to return, after those more exposed to outbreaks, then whatever financial pickle they are in now gets monumentally worse. Think about the aftermath of the 94-95 work stoppage and the lingering effects from that, and that took place in a stable economy and without many competing entertainment options (almost nobody had high-speed Internet, never mind streaming services or video games on demand) that baseball fans have now. Don’t just assume that fans will just come back, especially not if everyone’s entertainment budget has been slashed because of the economic downturn, not to mention the sour taste you left in their mouths. Don’t assume that your TV partners won’t want their money back even as they try to remain solvent themselves. Don’t assume that your franchise values will always increase, or that you’ll even have a willing buyer. Don’t assume that your salaries are always going to increase because that’s how it’s always been. Because if you cancel the season and are the last to return, good luck ever getting back to where you were at the end of 2019 in the minds of the public, and that ultimately determines how much money you make. In other words, owners and players, stop your PR campaigns and narrative constructing, and treat this like the industry crisis it is by shutting the fuck up and getting to the negotiating table.