Sunday, May 10, 2020

The Conflict Begins

I'd like to share some thoughts today on the upcoming battle between the clubs and the players this week as MLB looks to potentially start up in July.

Multiple reports say that MLB will be looking for salary concessions from the players for games played without fans. There is consensus among all the major sources about that fact. Not unexpectedly, we're also hearing reports that the players are not happy about this. Jesse Rogers at ESPN reports that players feel that the risk they are taking to their health should not come at a lower rate of compensation than the pro-rated salaries already negotiated.

The teams are arguing that, lacking the revenues from fans attending games at the ballparks, the salaries of players need to be adjusted down. They want player compensation to be based on a percentage of revenue. The players don't want this because, in addition to less money for risking their health this season, revenue sharing plans in other sports usually involve a salary cap. While not proposed for this season, the players probably fear that allowing compensation to be tied to revenue in 2020 would set a precedent and open the door for owners to negotiate for both revenue sharing and a cap going in the future.

At NBC Sports' Hardball Talk, Craig Calcaterra reports that the players are "hopping mad" over the cuts. According to the infamous unnamed source with knowledge of the players' thinking, there "is going to be a war" if the owners insist on cuts. The players argue that being paid a pro-rated salary based on games was already agreed to back in March, and that the only negotiations about playing in empty ballparks were supposed to be about safety, not about money.

The owners are supposed to be putting out their proposal to the players Tuesday, so we'll see this play out soon enough. I, of course, as a fan of the game hopes it all gets resolved and we see baseball this year. Still, I tend to side with the players mostly on the issues discussed for several reasons.

Number one is the risk to health. The only ones really taking that risk are the players, coaches, umpires and on-site support personnel, including trainers, locker room attendants and others whose job requires close, daily contact with the players. There is not a single team owner that would be placed in a position of higher risk if a season is played than if it is not. Repeat, not a single, solitary one.

There certainly are other considerations, but this one of health risk seems paramount to me. The risks that the 2 sides are taking are not equal. Making less money, or even possibly losing money, is not equivalent to risking your life.

It wouldn't surprise me at all if some players elect not to play this season, even if both sides come to an agreement. They might not be willing to risk their own health or the health of their immediate family members. Other than not paying them, what leverage will owners really have against these players?

Despite the stereotypes being promoted in some quarters, not everyone who dies from this virus is a doddering old person resigned to waiting for death in a nursing home. People of all ages can die. Also, some relatively young people who have survived the virus developed complications that might plague them for years. If this happened to a ballplayer, there's a good chance it could negatively impact or even end their career.

Even from a monetary standpoint, as Calcaterra notes in the article linked to above, when MLB enjoys unexpectedly high revenues the owners don't feel a burning need to give some of that to back to the players whose talents are essentially the product that MLB markets. They don't share the wealth in good times, why should the players help with the financial losses of a pandemic that was beyond anyone's control on either side of the bargaining table? I love Calcaterra's reference to privatizing profits and socializing losses.

I'm not sure how this is going to play out. I think both sides have tremendous incentive to play in 2020. As I pointed out a few days ago, the vast majority of major league ballplayers, while better off than most of us, cannot afford to go an entire year without income, particularly when there are plenty of uncertainties about how normal life may be next year.

For the owners, beyond the loss of any potential revenues this season, there's a risk of losing fans if there is no baseball played in 2020. I'm not even speaking about potentially angering fans who love the game. We're all likely to come back, even if we question the good faith of the negotiations on management's part.

The ones who I would worry about if I owned an MLB franchise are the fringier fans, the ones who essentially have a take it or leave it mentality about baseball already - the fans who see baseball as a bridge from basketball to football. If you don't give them baseball this season and force them to find other things to do in the summer, they might just do that and not bother to come back next summer.

And how about the kids - the ones who are just developing their fandom - what about them? Take baseball away for a year and many of them will move on without regrets. Baseball is having a harder time appealing to younger fans as it is, does it really want to go dark for a year? In its final season, the late, great TV show Brockmire envisioned an America ten years in the future where nobody cares about baseball any more. I don't think MLB wants to make that bit of satire a reality.

Then there is the whole issue of doing something for the good of the country. Nobody wants to be seen as unpatriotic, denying Americans a reprieve from the troubles and travails of living with Coronavirus. If either side is seen as not trying to come to a deal, they risk being accused of the dreaded lack of patriotism.

I think there are enough incentives to play this year for both sides. Provided a way can be found for the game to be played safely - and that still remains to be seen - I think we will see baseball this season. I don't have any anonymous sources to back this up, but I suspect that the whole revenue sharing idea might be a ploy by ownership: a bargaining chip, something to trade away in negotiations. I guess we'll find out pretty quickly how serious about this they are going forward.

One final thought for today. There is talk of limiting travel by having teams in the east play games only against teams in the eastern divisions of both leagues. Ditto for teams in the central and western divisions. If the proposal for staying within geographic regions plays out, and it certainly makes a lot of sense, I think it's going to be hard to credit records of clubs that play in the relatively weak central divisions of either league as being equivalent to those in the east or west. There's nothing you can really do about it, I guess, but it's going to skew up the whole process even more than usual.

I'm sure that we're going to be discussing these issues plenty this week. In the meantime, please stay well. I'll see you back here tomorrow.

 Follow me on Twitter @MikeSteffanos

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