Could Contentious Negotiations Cost Major League Baseball?

ORLANDO, FL -- “Outlined against a blue-gray October sky, the Four Horseman rode. In dramatic lore they are known as Famine, Pestilence, Destruction and Death. These are only aliases. Their real names are Stuhldreher, Miller, Crowley and Layden.”

That is the iconic lead paragraph that the late great sportswriter Grantland Rice wrote while covering a Notre Dame football game in 1924.

Now, almost 96 years later, a new generation of Horseman rides, this time across the landscape of Major League Baseball. They are known as Greed, Obstinance, Ego and Acrimony. These are not aliases. They are appropriately-named parties sitting at the negotiating table besides MLB owners and the Major League Baseball Players Association as the two groups try to salvage a 2020 season.

Make no mistake; COVID-19 is in control. The virus will determine the if, when, and how of the 2020 season. But acrimony between owners and players may tag-team with the virus for a formidable 1-2 punch to keep baseball stadiums across the country dark until next year. The virus may keep away the fans; mistrust may keep away the teams.

To be sure, there are other matters that the owners and players must agree upon before the season can be played: including the universal Designated Hitter, increased roster sizes, regionalized schedules, expanded playoffs, and most important of all, protecting the health of the players and their families, as well as all of the support people required to put on a game.

But, it is human nature to fixate on the most sensational, the most shocking. It’s why TV news broadcasts follow the, “If it bleeds, it leads” mantra. In this case, it’s how the owners and players will divvy up billions of dollars in revenue and salaries. It’s the most tantalizing of the details to be worked out, and by far the most contentious.

An Agreement Unravels

Back in March, the two sides had reached an agreement in which the players would be paid pro-rated salaries based on the number of games played, plus a guarantee that if the season is canceled, players would receive service time equal to what the player accrued in 2019.

But, when it became apparent that much or all of the season would be played without fans, the owners called that model “unsustainable,” and said that an “economic feasibility” clause in the agreement allows for the terms to be revisited if games are played in empty stadiums.

The owners contend that since about 40 percent of revenue comes from the gate (ticket sales, luxury box rentals, parking, concessions, etc.) they will suffer significant financial losses if games are played without fans. According to a recent story by the Associated Press, MLB anticipates a $640,000-per-game loss without any fans in attendance.

So, the owners proposed “a partnership” with the players, where they split television revenue 50-50 from regular season and playoff games.

The players swiftly shot that down, and the bickering began, with counterproposals and condemnations back and forth, and spilling over onto social media.

Then, the owners proposed an 82-game schedule with a sliding scale of pay cuts: players making the least would take a 10-percent cut and players making most would take a 90-percent cut. That plan, according to the Associated Press, could save each team as much as $100 million.

The players suggested instead a 114-game regular season with full pro-rated pay, and offered to defer $100 million in player salaries at 6 percent interest should the playoffs be canceled.

The owners rejected that idea and quickly fired back with the threat of a 50-game regular season.

Regular-season or postseason games, why does all this matter? Because there are hundreds of millions of dollars at stake for both sides.

The players are paid for regular-season games; they do not receive salaries for the postseason. Instead they receive “shares,” with their income determined by how far their team advances in the playoffs. So, the more regular-season games that are played, the more the players make from their pro-rated salaries.

On the other hand, much of the owners’ revenue comes from the lucrative postseason TV deals, which are estimated to be worth a little under $790 million. The longer the regular season lasts, owners contend, the greater the chances that the postseason could spill into what health officials have called an “inevitable” second wave of coronavirus cases, and wipe out the postseason. Plus, owners argue, a full schedule of games in October would be “plagued by cancellations” due to weather.

As the clock ticks on a plausible timetable for having a season, both sides clearly are digging in their heels. In a recent story for The Athletic by Evan Drellich and Ken Rosenthal, one agent, speaking anonymously, said, “I’ve never seen a negotiation like this in anything in my life. ‘Negotiation’ is a very generous term. It’s like a spit-wad contest.”

Some might say, well, this is just the usual give-and-take of negotiations: Ask for more than you expect to receive, offer less than you are willing to give. And the fact that both sides are talking, regardless of the inflammatory and dismissive rhetoric, is a good sign.

But, history is not so optimistic. While there has been an uneasy labor peace for the past quarter-century, the long history of acrimony between the players and owners is surfacing again. Dating back to 1972, there have been eight player strikes or lockouts by the owners. There is growing concern that this could be number nine.

It Is About the Money

The players will tell you that it’s not just about the money; that it’s about protecting their rights and future generations of players. The owners will say it’s not about profit and losses, but both parties sharing in the risks during a national crisis that none of us has ever seen before.

But I’m reminded of a quote by H.L. Mencken, “If somebody says it’s not about the money, it’s about the money.”

Baseball may be a game of inches, as they say, but it’s also a game of dollars. Read what Tampa Bay Rays’ left-hander Blake Snell had to say in a conversation on his Twitch channel about the owners’ suggestion that players and teams adopt a one-time-only, 50-50 split of revenue (which the players regard as a pay cut).

"Y'all gotta understand, man, for me to go -- for me to take a pay cut is not happening, because the risk is through the roof," said Snell, who was scheduled to earn $7 million for a full 2020 season. “It’s a shorter season, less pay.

“No, I gotta get my money. I'm not playing unless I get mine, OK? And that's just the way it is for me. Like, I'm sorry you guys think differently, but the risk is way the hell higher and the amount of money I’m making is way lower. Why would I think of doing that?”

It would seem greedy, tone deaf, and selfish for someone to complain about making millions a year, especially when about one in six people in this country are unemployed, when more than 42 million Americans have filed for unemployment benefits, when food banks nationwide are overwhelmed by demand, and when, according to glassdoor.com, the average salary for an Emergency Room Nurse is $75,000, a Grocery Store Clerk is $22,646, and the average starting salary of a teacher is just over $39,000 a year.

Yet, Snell received a lot of support from fellow players for his comments. “He ain’t lying,” Philadephia Phillies’ star Bryce Harper said. “He’s speaking the truth, bro. Somebody’s got to say it.”

Why Players Oppose a Pay Cut

Why are players so adamantly against what they consider to be a second round of pay cuts?

For one, they believe they already reached an agreement in March, and as with any honorable business transaction, a deal is a deal.

Second, the players believe this is just the latest in a decades-long attempt by owners to squelch salaries. The players trust the owners about as much as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi trusts President Donald Trump.

Over the past several months, MLBPA officials have accused the owners of using a “cynical tactic” of depriving the country of baseball in order to get a more favorable deal, and taking advantage of “a worldwide health crisis” to try to achieve what’s been the owners’ goal for years: a salary cap.

Third, the players are in no mood to help the owners. As baseball revenues have soared in recent years, almost doubling from $5.8 billion in 2009 to $10.7 billion last year, player pay has not kept pace (According to statista.com, the average MLB salary of $4.36 million last year is $200,000 less than in 2016). So, if owners didn’t sweeten the players’ pot during good times, the union feels no obligation to help the owners now. Plus, the stagnant free-agent market in the 2017 and 2018 off-seasons that left many players scrambling for jobs at below-market value remains fresh in the players’ minds.

Fourth, the players say they, not the owners, are the ones potentially exposing themselves to the highly contagious virus by playing. And, very little is known about the long-term effects of COVID-19 on a person’s health.

Fifth, the players fear that agreeing to a revenue-sharing plan now, even for just a half season, would weaken their negotiating position when the Collective Bargaining Agreement expires after next season. After all, once you concede something in an agreement, it’s hard to get it back.

The Art of Compromise

A reasonable solution would seem to be players and owners splitting revenue 50-50 for regular-season and postseason games, as the owners had suggested, for this season only. In addition, an assurance to players of receiving deferred payments to make up for the difference between their pro-rated pay and the revenue split, plus a slight premium, spaced out over a couple years when Major League Baseball returns to a more “normal” operation.

But, somehow, compromise has become a dirty word in our society. Too often, compromise is seen as a sign of weakness. Baseball owners and players are like Democrats and Republicans considering a bill: neither side is willing to compromise because it doesn’t want to be seen as giving in, nor does it want the other side to be credited with earning a victory.

As someone once said, “Compromise is the art of dividing a cake so that everyone thinks they got the biggest piece.” Major League Baseball is a $10-billion industry. Surely there is enough cake that both owners and players can be satisfied with their slice.

Now is not the time for gamesmanship, or trying to gain leverage for negotiations for the next Collective Bargaining Agreement. Now is the time for owners and players to reach common ground. It’s not about who “wins the deal”, but how both sides worked together to save a season.

Hopefully, MLB owners and players come to their senses in time to play a 2020 season, and the Four Horsemen -- Greed, Obstinance, Ego and Acrimony – ride off.

But, don’t bet on it. As the late Shirley Chisholm, the first African American woman elected to Congress, once said, “When morality comes up against profit, it is seldom that profit loses.”

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Dennis Richardson is a writer/editor with Words Matter. He has an extensive background as a reporter, copy editor, sportswriter, sports copy editor, and Senior Special Sections Writer with newspapers in Missouri and Florida. He lives outside of Orlando, FL.

Photo credit: Alessandro Porri/Unsplash.com

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