Under the threat of the spreading coronavirus, Major League Baseball is opening its 30 training camps this weekend with the hope that an abbreviated 60-game season without fans can begin July 23. That, of course, remains to be seen.
Even getting to this point took months of negotiations between the owners and the MLB Players Association that were so contentious the two sides only hardened in their positions.
“I was very, very encouraged by the amount of players who were engaged,” said Nick Ahmed, the player rep and shortstop of the Arizona Diamondbacks who himself was very engaged in the recent process. “I’ve never seen anything like that: how committed guys were to be educated, understanding the process. Just seeing how unified the group of players was.”
This season’s dust-up portends Armageddon next year in collective bargaining for a new Basic Agreement, which expires Dec. 1, 2021. One high-ranking executive said there will be no money and no inclination toward signing free agents such as Mookie Betts and George Springer in the interim.
A lockout or strike is now a legitimate outcome for the 2022 season, and either would end 28 years of labor peace dating back to the strike that ended the 1994 season, playoffs and World Series. The 1995 season was also delayed when the owners tried to use replacement players.
“We’re not negotiating for just 60 games,” Ahmed added. “We’re going to be negotiating for five years. I can’t wait to see how the player group comes together again there.”
The matter is one of trust, said one highly placed executive who asked to remain anonymous. And there is none between owners and players, who suspect their bosses of shielding money through ownership of regional sports networks and ballpark villages, the latest concept in building stadiums and maximizing revenues in the neighborhoods surrounding them.
The players point to the fact that in the four years pre-COVID, revenue had increased 15 percent annually while salaries rose at a rate of a quarter of a percent per year, player agent Scott Boras said in a recent interview.
MLB generated revenue of $10.7 billion last season with players’ salaries accounting for $4.58 billion, or about 47 percent.
Franchise values have increased dramatically during the last two decades, a benefit the players don’t receive.
In 2000, David Glass bought the Kansas City Royals for $96 million, only to sell the franchise shortly before his death last year to John Sherman for $1 billion.
Jeffery Loria purchased the now Miami Marlins in 2002 for $158 million; two years ago, he sold the Marlins to a group run by Bruce Sherman for $1.2 billion.
“The owners want to privatize their gains and socialize their losses,” said Boras, who can recall the sale price and current value of every club. “You’d think you’d want them to use their equity to get whatever they need to operate their business because they’ve had a decade of quadrupling their purchase price.
“You’re looking at a very healthy and wealthy group based on the asset values. And they don’t want to do anything to hurt their asset values because they have some short-term problem they have to deal with, knowing they’re going to be right back at in 2021. So, privatize the gains moving forward, and you take the losses today.”
In this year’s case, the union proposed a 70-game schedule at full pro-rated pay and with it, financial accoutrements, like an expanded postseason and advertising on the uniform. Owners chose to forgo that revenue for a 60 game season after deeming the the extra 10 games too expensive to operate without ticket, suite, advertising and sponsorship revenue. The owners also abandoned a piece of their $2.1 billion in local television revenue to play fewer games.
Instead, the MLBPA reserved the right to grieve the entire process.
Ken Kendrick, the Diamondbacks managing general partner, told a local Phoenix radio station last month that none of this would have happened if MLB had revenue sharing and a salary cap like the other major pro team sports. The remark pulled the curtain back to reveal where the collective bargaining negotiations could be headed next year.
“This situation wouldn’t have evolved if we were in a revenue-sharing model,” Kendrick said. “We would be acting as partners to get together and put the game back on the field. The very lack of a revenue-sharing model puts us in an adversarial position when we really ought to be partners in advancing the game and building the revenues because all will win under those circumstances.
“Why is that in the NFL, the NBA and the NHL, both their ownership group and unions have recognized the value of that kind of a system? And our union takes the position that that’s a non-starter?”
Well, there are many reasons, but primarily the salary cap systems in the other sports came as a result of highly contentious negotiations that resulted in numerous lockouts and strikes.
Baseball’s union claims it doesn’t receive the financial information it needs from MLB, including during the latest round of pandemic negotiations. That’s another matter of serious contention.
“I have made it very clear that personally there is not a single financial item related to the Arizona Diamondbacks that I wouldn’t make available to anybody in a position of authority at the Players Association to look at,” Kendrick said.
“And in fact, they get our audited statements already. I think that it’s a red herring to say there’s significant money being made by baseball teams that the players don’t know about.”
The players don’t believe it. The 1994-95 strike ended after the National Labor Relations Board ruled against the owners when MLB prematurely implemented a salary cap. Nearly a decade earlier, the owners were found guilty of collusion regarding the signing of free agents. The emotions are so raw on both sides of the baseball labor situation that even if they get through this season, we haven’t seen the least of it yet.