Would A Labor Battle Sink MLB’s Return?

Illustration for article titled Would A Labor Battle Sink MLB’s Return?
Illustration: Eric Barrow

While MLB certainly has a lot of obstacles to jump over, under, and through to start the 2020 season due to the coronavirus pandemic, it would certainly be on brand for them to not even get there because the owners felt like picking another fight with the players. They seem intent, but the brewing anger from the players over the past few offseasons might see them finally rise up against the owners. That combined with fear of safety, at least.


Reports were starting to emerge last night that as part of any resumption of baseball, the owners were going to go back to the players for more than they’ve already asked. Back in March, after the halting of spring training, both the owners and players agreed to a $170M “advance” on salaries, as well as to prorated salaries for the season based on how many games they ended up playing. That included no salary if no games were played.

But that apparently isn’t enough for the owners, who are planning on returning to the players to make some sort of revenue-sharing/split accord part of whatever shape the 2020 season takes. Bob Nightengale is reporting that the owners will make that figure 50% of whatever they take in during a for-TV-only season.

As you might imagine, the players’ general attitude toward this rhymes with, “Kiss my ass.”

For one, that 48% figure is simply not going to fly. “Utter horseshit” might be another phrase attached to it. In 2018, MLB teams spent 54.2% of their total revenue on salaries, the last year there are any official numbers. That was the lowest percentage since 2010. Rough estimates have last year’s total money spent on salaries coming up below 50% of total revenue. Players are going to recognize this as an attempt to lock this sort of thing in long-term.

But mostly what will have players seething is that they have no guarantee that when revenues for owners go up, their salaries will as well. The 2018 and 2019 offseasons are proof of that, and while the signing of Gerrit Cole, Anthony Rendon, and the extension of Stephen Strasburg, among others this winter, was something of an improvement, it still saw teams like the Cubs, Red Sox, and Dodgers treat the luxury tax like a militarized zone.

Why should the players have to take a hit when revenues fall when they don’t get a boost when they rise?


Secondly, the players are the ones taking all the risks. It would be a true shock if you saw any owner anywhere near these closed parks for games, while the players will have to go through all the testing, all the measures, and all the worry about themselves and their families while the owners are free to stay home. And count their money, let’s not forget that.

Perhaps the most ridiculous part of this proposed negotiation is that in order to lock in whatever percentage the owners deem the players worthy — if the players even came close to agreeing to that — the owners would have to open the books for everyone to see what that would be. In the past, MLB owners have treated that like opening the Ark Of The Covenant. Somehow, you’d have to think it would be unlikely that the players would agree to a percentage of whatever the owners just tell them they’re making.


And all of this is after an agreement was already put in place in March, that the owners want to walk back simply to either avoid losses or more likely, increase what profits they would make anyway. Baseball has become so reliant on TV and streaming that it’s hard to know if a behind-closed-doors season would plunge most or any of it into the red.

The owners have crammed in an extra round of playoffs in this reported proposal, certainly dressed up as a carrot to the players. An extra round of playoffs means more revenue for everyone if the players agree to a percentage. But that’s dicey too, as with forecasts of another wave of COVID-19 in the fall, extended playoffs might only increase the chance that MLB won’t get to finish the season at all. Which would only lower what the players get more than prorated salaries, likely.


Clearly, there isn’t an MLB owner who can’t take on a season or two of losses. And if there is one, they could put their team up for sale tomorrow and have a line around the block to take it off their hands (with tape on the sidewalk to mark proper social distancing, of course) for three or five or ten times what they paid. There’s only one team (Miami) that’s valued at less than $1B. If it’s going to be such a disaster owning an MLB team for the next little while, there’s nothing preventing them from jumping ship. Someone will take their place.


What the owners are probably counting on is public opinion turning on the players, something the owners always seem able to do during work stoppages, for seeking more money at a time when 20% or more of the populace is out of work due to the pandemic. But unlike normal labor stoppages, there is actual physical danger here that the players would be taking on. Other than our more oxygen-starved countrymen, this is something most fans recognize.

It’s strange, don’t you think, that when it’s a lockout, owners are more than happy to take a loss for part or a whole season if the promise is more money in the future. They can always afford to lose more than the players can, as it’s a billionaires vs. millionaires fight. But with no promise of greater profits in the immediate future, and no fight to “win” in the conference room, suddenly the owners aren’t so brave.

We can't be too careful. Two guys in an airport...talking? It's a little fishy.