Allow me to summarize the current labor strife in Major League Baseball (MLB) in one word, ‘Money.’ A more expansive nine-word summary, ‘Money and how it is going to be distributed.’ The MLB Owners know if games are played with no fans in the stands they will lose money for every regular season game played. The Players believe they were promised full, prorated salaries for each game that is played; the Owners are reneging on that promise; and any concessions they agree to for 2020 will be carried forward into future seasons. In short, neither side trusts the other.
And there are poor public relations optics galore on both sides.
Washington Nationals pitcher Max Scherzer has a seven-year contract that runs from 2015-2021, where he averages $30 million per season. Scherzer said early in the negotiations he couldn’t possibly play for less than his full prorated salary. All of this coming while the U.S. National Unemployment rate is 13.3 percent and millions of people are out of work.
Chicago Cubs Owner Tom Ricketts alluded to cash flow problems with his club, while St. Louis Cardinals Owner William O. DeWitt, Jr. stated that baseball isn’t very profitable. Estimates of MLB’s revenue totals for the 2019 season that have appeared in print run the gamut from $9.7 billion to $10.2 billion. If the 30 member teams aren’t making money on that level of revenue, then teams aren’t being operated well.
Over the weekend, word leaked out that Turner Sports and MLB have agreed to a new seven-year, $3.76 billion contract for future post-season games. Other details, such as the number of games involved, have yet to be announced. So, that’s $125.3 million to each MLB team, regardless of the contract terms.
Feel free to compare and contrast the last three paragraphs.
Both sides have lost sight of the fact that Major League Baseball is now a regional sport, although baseball games televised by regional sports networks draw large ratings and are considered to be very profitable programming. The biggest missed opportunity MLB has in all of this was their chance to dominate the month of July, as the only major professional sport to resume competing on a national scale after the COVID-19 crisis hit. The NBA, which is currently grappling with the details of their restart, won’t play games until July 30 at the earliest. MLB could have dominated all sports media, with huge ratings for a month, which would have been beneficial to Baseball long-term.
Much of this labor strife dates back to the days when Marvin Miller ran the MLB Players Association (MLBPA). Miller was a big hitter (baseball pun) in Organized Labor prior to taking over the MLBPA, having held positions with the International Association of Machinists, the United Auto Workers, and the United Steelworkers. The MLBPA was first formed in 1953, with Miller joining the union in 1966. Over the next 16 years Miller made the MLBPA one of the strongest unions in the United States and by far the strongest union in professional sports. Miller did an incredible job of swinging (again with the puns) power back to the players, but he had a scorched earth negotiating style which I believe created the enmity between Owners and Players that still exists.
As of Monday, it appeared Major League Commissioner Rob Manfred was prepared to unilaterally impose a regular season schedule of between 48 and 52 games on the players. On the Players side, current MLBPA Executive Director Tony Clark appears to be taking a strategic retreat before mounting an assault for what could be an epic off-season negotiation with the Owners. There is an absolute certainty the Players will file a grievance against the Owners for not negotiating in good faith and playing as many games as possible, creating less income for the players. Don’t expect the Owners to back down from a legal challenge. Looking at the bigger picture, any changes to the game, from attempting to quicken the pace of games, to an expanded Playoff schedule, must be approved by the MLBPA, so settle in for the fireworks.
Monday afternoon Commissioner Manfred said the following on ESPN, “I know the owners are 100 percent committed to getting baseball back on the field. Unfortunately, I can’t tell you I’m 100 percent certain that’s going to happen. I had been hopeful once we got to common ground on the idea that we were going to pay the players full prorated salaries, that we would get some cooperation in terms of proceeding with the agreement we had negotiated with the MLBPA on March 26. Unfortunately over the weekend while Tony Clark was declaring his desire to get back to work, the union’s top lawyer was out telling reporters and players and eventually getting back to owners, that as soon as we issued the schedule as they requested, they intended to file a grievance saying they were entitled to an additional $1 billion. Obviously that sort of bad faith tactic makes it extremely difficult to move forward in these circumstances.” When asked about the future of the season, Manfred replied, “I’m not confident. I think there’s real risk and as long as there is no dialogue, that risk is going to continue.” A letter Manfred sent to the MLBPA earlier Monday, supposedly includes a line that indicates there will be no season unless players waive legal claims over the number of games to be played this season.
With the history between the parties, and the current unyielding negotiating approaches, about the only thing certain about the 2020 MLB season is there is an excellent chance I will get a $121 refund on the purchase of the MLB Television package I made in March.