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SportsColumnistsDavid Lennon

NBA pay reduction gets MLB's attention

An Indians baseball fan looks through the locked

An Indians baseball fan looks through the locked gates at Cleveland's Progressive Field on March 26. Even when baseball returns, it might not necessarily be played in front of spectators. Credit: AP / Tony Dejak

When it was revealed on the night of March 11 that Rudy Gobert of the NBA’s Utah Jazz had tested positive for COVID-19, commissioner Adam Silver suspended the season within hours.

A day later, just about everything else stopped, too, with MLB counterpart Rob Manfred calling a halt to spring training as well as postponing Opening Day, which remains in limbo, like most of the United States.

During uncertain times like these, somebody needs to step into the void first. That includes sports leagues, which in this case are looking for cues from health officials along with state and federal governments.

Also, it’s important to mention, their colleagues in other sports.

So when the NBA announced Friday that the players will have their salaries reduced by 25% starting May 15, given that the remaining 259 regular-season games essentially have been wiped out (postponed officially) with no plan in sight for the playoffs, the ripple effects certainly were noticed throughout pro sports, including MLB.

The timing is noteworthy, with the MLB debate over 2020 compensation starting to percolate among team owners and the players’ union. The potentially explosive detail? What to do if the MLB season does resume but has to be played at neutral sites in Arizona without fans — a condition that Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top doc for infectious diseases, basically mandated last week.

The key here, obviously, is games played. The NBA hasn’t had one since March 11, hence the givebacks. For MLB, the two sides negotiated a path forward on March 27 by coming to terms on a $170 million advance to players, through May 24, in the wake of contracts being suspended (by CBA language) as soon as President Donald Trump declared a national emergency on March 13. The players also were granted a full year’s credit for service time, even if there are no games.

The agreement also stipulates that if the season does start, players will receive a prorated amount of their contracts based on the number of games, which makes sense. If a baseball player is due $10 million and 81 games are played, he’ll get $5 million.

But the owners — concerned about the potential loss of gate revenues that make up roughly 40% of their earnings, according to Manfred — did include some fine print regarding the neutral-site, no-fans contingency. According to a person familiar with the details of that agreement, the language says “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.”

As far as MLB is concerned, the March 27 agreement was a jumping-off point designed to smooth over some necessary, significant speed bumps around Opening Day. It was not meant to be the final, binding resolution for the 2020 season, only because no one could possibly know what such a season was going to look like. It’s not any clearer now, either.

“Most important, the only decision that we’ve made, the only real plan that we have, is that baseball is not going to return until the public health situation is improved to the point that we’re comfortable that we can play games in a manner that is safe for our players, our employees, our fans — and in a way that will not impact the public health situation adversely,” Manfred said during an appearance on Fox Business News last week.

Despite Fauci’s optimism, MLB has a logistical mountain the size of Everest to climb before a pitch is thrown this summer. We’re still in the relatively early stages of containing the coronavirus, the country remains under lockdown and the idea of playing games, even by the Arizona “bubble” standards, is a blurry concept.

The feeling inside MLB circles is that they still have time to see if the situation improves; even a July Opening Day could work. But even if MLB and the players at some point are prepared to take the calculated risk presented by the virus, the salary complications loom as a significant stumbling block.

Obviously, as union chief Tony Clark said, “players want to play.” But someone such as Pete Alonso ($652,521) or Gleyber Torres ($675,000) could be more amenable to bargaining over their 2020 salary to get back on the field than, say, Mike Trout, who is set to earn $36 million this year.

How can a middle ground be calculated beyond the prorated-game structure currently in place? The players are assuming all of the physical hardship here — being quarantined in hotels for up to five months, most likely removed from their families, as well as potentially increasing their exposure to the virus.

MLB may be a $10 billion industry, but the owners also will be doing some cost-benefit analysis. Those teams that rely the most on gate revenues drawn from tickets and concessions may choose to balk at resuming the season at empty neutral sites, especially if they’re expected to shell out the full salaries.

This could be a tricky PR game for both sides to play. Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo ignited a media firestorm last week when he said that Mets COO Jeff Wilpon mentioned the idea of salary reduction in order to start the season in Arizona. But Wilpon didn’t come up with this — it already had been discussed among MLB owners.

For now, those negotiations mostly have been tabled. The COVID-19 outbreak is calling the shots, as Manfred and Silver strive to remind us. And from a public-health standpoint, it’s crucial that all involved keep their eye on the ball.

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