Will issue of players' salaries cancel MLB season?
What if baseball’s biggest fight isn’t against the coronavirus? Could a civil war between MLB’s owners and the Players Association ultimately be what dooms the 2020 season before it even starts?
That’s the simmering fear among those inside the sport as the two sides prepare this week to discuss MLB’s return-to-play blueprint, which calls for a regionalized 80-game schedule, the use of home ballparks (where allowable) and an expanded playoff schedule, sources confirmed Sunday. The Athletic was the first to report the details.
The most volatile part of these negotiations, however, does not seem to involve any proposed screening process for COVID-19 or other health-related issues. The potential deal-breaker may ride on the compensation for the players, and if the last remaining hope for this season implodes over money concerns, well, that would be a terrible outcome for both sides.
Commissioner Rob Manfred is scheduled to have a Monday conference call with the 30 teams to formally go over MLB’s proposal, with the expectation that he could present it to the Players Association as soon as Tuesday, a source confirmed. As far as a timetable, the proposal calls for spring training 2.0 to start next month and Opening Day to take place in early July, in what was described as the best-case scenario.
As for the debate over a revised salary structure, the genesis of that can be found in the March 26 agreement struck between MLB and the Players Association, which granted a full year’s credit of service time — even if the season is canceled — and a $170 million advance on salaries through the end of May. The latter was critical because of the fact that players’ contracts were suspended once President Trump declared a national emergency.
The agreement also called for players to be paid on a prorated basis depending on the number of games played once the season did resume. Given that MLB’s current proposal calls for roughly 81 games, for example, that would mean a player signed to a $10 million deal for this season would earn $5 million.
At issue, however, is the accompanying clause that states: “The office of the commissioner and players association will discuss in good faith the economic feasibility of playing games in the absence of spectators or at appropriate substitute neutral sites.”
Because that’s where this year is headed — at least the no-spectators part and possibly including some neutral sites — the owners are clinging to that section of the agreement with nearly a quarter of the season wiped out. According to a source, gate-related income (tickets, concessions, sponsors, parking, etc.) accounts for 51% of a team’s local revenue and makes up 40% of MLB’s total revenue.
Of course, MLB has other lucrative revenue streams from multimedia outlets and the TV networks, both regional and national, so it’s difficult to pin down exactly how much red ink this $10 billion industry is spilling these days. Still, those networks aren’t getting any return on their investment right now and certainly will seek financial adjustments themselves in the years ahead.
What really infuriated union chief Tony Clark last month was Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo letting it slip that Mets COO Jeff Wilpon told him salaries would have to be renegotiated if the 2020 season was to resume. Obviously, that didn’t sit well with the Players Association, and Clark took that opportunity to draw the battle lines that have remained in place.
“Players recently reached an agreement with Major League Baseball that outlines economic terms for resumption of play, which included significant salary adjustments and a number of other compromises,” Clark said in an April 21 email statement. “That negotiation is over.”
If the salary issue is a non-starter this week, it’s going to be difficult to get to anything else, because a payment plan is crucial to getting baseball up and running again.
As for the rest of MLB’s proposal, it looks plausible on paper, provided that the COVID-19 outbreak has cooled to manageable levels by next month.
The plan is to limit travel by having teams play primarily within their divisions, stretching only to play their corresponding division in the other league, which would set up more games between the Yankees and Mets. With no minor leagues operating this season, rosters would have to be expanded, and both leagues would use the DH to protect pitchers from injury. .
A regular COVID-19 testing system needs to be devised. As for dealing with a positive test, MLB probably will look to other pro leagues for guidance. In South Korea, the KBO’s policy is to shut down for three weeks if a player tests positive, but Spain’s soccer league has continued to operate despite five players, at two different levels, coming down with the virus.