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If some fans are allowed to attend MLB games, will that help sides reach an agreement?

Empty seats are seen as the Mets play

Empty seats are seen as the Mets play the Washington Nationals at Citi Field on Thursday, May 19, 2011. Credit: Jim McIsaac

Could the prospect of allowing fans into Yankee Stadium and Citi Field potentially help get the players back on the field?

It’s an interesting wrinkle to the bitter labor fight that threatens to cancel the season. Major League Baseball and the Players Association remain far apart in negotiations because of money issues, but the addition of gate-related revenue to this formula, even at half-capacity, could grow into a game-changer.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott opened the door to the idea Wednesday by unlocking stadiums for up to 50% capacity as part of his state’s Phase 3 recovery from the COVID-19 outbreak. Not only does that scenario provide a significant financial payoff to the Astros and Rangers, but the players also would stand to benefit, either by a percentage share or perhaps convincing the owners to schedule more games — thereby increasing their prorated salaries.

MLB’s proposal for a restart this year operated on the assumption that spectators would not be allowed at games. But in light of Texas’ bold push, a source said Friday that MLB will leave it up to local government officials to determine the feasibility of permitting fans, and to what capacity.

 Commissioner Rob Manfred maintains that 40% of the sport’s income is generated by gate-related revenue, such as tickets and concessions, so any attendance at all would provide an economic boost for owners.    

As for New York, the city has been the world’s epicenter for the coronavirus, and a month ago it was almost unthinkable that crowds could gather anywhere within the five boroughs. But after a prolonged shutdown and extreme social distancing, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s plan has the city finally entering Phase 1 this Monday. Going by the estimate of two-plus weeks between phases, that would put New York at the necessary Phase 4 around late July, which depending on MLB’s progress could have fans back, perhaps with gradual increases, for most of a truncated season.

The subject has come up in negotiations, sources said, but having the COVID-19 outbreak recede enough to cooperate is hardly guaranteed. Obviously, every state has been affected by the pandemic to varying degrees, and Texas, Arizona and Florida have been among the most ambitious with their reopening plans.

New York is just the opposite. Cuomo has been very conservative in easing the city’s restrictions, but he’s shown more flexibility with the professional sports teams. His green-lighting the state for training camps on May 24 was a somewhat surprising decision. It’s also worth noting that Yankees president Randy Levine and Mets chief operating officer Jeff Wilpon are on the governor’s reopening committee.

In the meantime, MLB needs to put together a blueprint for this season, with or without the approval of the Players Association. And on that front, the two sides brawled again Friday.

Bruce Meyer, the union’s top negotiator, sent a letter to MLB that went back on the attack, according to The Athletic. Meyer’s scathing response was spurred by Wednesday’s letter from deputy commissioner Dan Halem, who had rejected the union’s 114-game proposal while also saying MLB would have internal discussions about starting a season on its own abbreviated terms.

Meyer called those plans a “cynical tactic of depriving America of baseball games,” according to the letter obtained by The Athletic, and again cast doubt on MLB’s assertions of financial distress. Meyer also took issue with Halem’s line about Rob Manfred’s commitment to playing this year.

“We are happy to hear that ‘the Commissioner is committed to playing Baseball in 2020,’ ” Meyer wrote, “since MLB’s course of conduct continues to lead to doubts.”

Manfred does have the power to unilaterally set a schedule, according to the March agreement, and the players are contractually obligated to report if he grants the prorated salaries. Sources said that is not close to happening yet — maybe in another week to 10 days — so there is time for a deal to materialize. MLB does not want to proceed without the union’s consent for a number of reasons, primarily because it needs the players’ approval for an expanded postseason, a huge moneymaker for the league.

Meyer cautioned in Friday’s letter that the union could file a grievance if Manfred pushes ahead with his 50-game plan. He also disagreed with MLB’s contention that the season cannot push beyond October because of coronavirus fears.

“The March 26 Agreement contemplates a discussion of playing regular season games in October and calls for the league to use ‘best efforts to play as many games as possible,’ ” Meyer wrote. “‘The league’s excuses for not doing so have no validity. Meanwhile, other leagues are moving forward with their plans for resumption.”

 

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