This past weekend, the MLB sent the MLBPA its proposal for the money split for the shortened 2020 season, should one happen. They’d previously floated a 50-50 split balloon. That balloon didn’t float at all, actually, since the union immediately called that a salary cap and said any such suggestions would be DOA.
MLB apparently decided to go with a “Don’t like that? We’ll get a load of this!” proposal. It introduced a sliding scale of cuts from a prorated salary—from 10% for minimum wage players on up to 70% for the highest paid players. A cynical person might suggest it was put forth in effort to divide the union membership as it was far friendlier to the lowest paid players, who also happen to be the majority. If so, it failed in spades. First, the players as a whole repeatedly point out they and the owners agreed to prorated pay back in March. The owners feel that agreement left room to renegotiate on the basis of games having to be played in empty venues; the MLBPA disagrees. Second, every one of the minimum wage players hope to ultimately reap the benefits of a full free agency; thus the MLB proposal was felt to be an insult to them too. One can say it was just a first proposal, that a negotiation has to start somewhere. Fine, but that proposal was a really bad look that made the owners appear greedy.
It also gift wrapped a PR coup opportunity for the MLBPA. Historically in labor disputes, or any other matter of money in baseball, fans at large seem to side with owners/blame players. “Players should realize what a privilege it is to play sports for a living and accept what they are offered.” “Tickets wouldn’t cost so much if only players didn’t demand so much money.” “The owners invest their own money and take the financial risks.” Etc, etc. This time, though, all they had to do was make a counter proposal that looked even a little flexible to look like knights in shining armor. Nope, they are reportedly putting together a counter proposal that’s just as DOA as the owners’ one was—wanting a longer season, 100-ish games, at full prorated salaries.
With no fans in the stands, the TV money is everything this year, especially national TV for the playoffs. A longer season, going farther into November, risks losing that money if cold weather brings back a rapid resurgence of COVID-19 necessitating halting the season. The players have to know that. The owners will not budge on that part.
Of course, the players’ proposal is just a first on in a negotiation too, and it won’t matter if/when the two sides reach an agreement. However, the players missed a golden PR opportunity, one that could have carried into next year’s CBA negotiations.
To be clear, the billionaires who own the ball clubs are not facing insolvency. Scott Boras’ assertions today were correct that their investment strategies and property developments have resulted in record high team values. They also create a short term liquidity problem in the face of the pandemic. However, his hard line “don’t bail them out” recommendation to his clients could mean no season at all. The players could address the liquidity issue by counter proposing a less egregious sliding scale pay cut from the full proration for this year and deferring that money to be paid later. Take less money now but ultimately get it down the road. Every casual fan would have nodded and thought “that’s fair.”
The MLBPA has requested more/more comprehensive information on MLB’s current financial situation. Here I am with them—that’s information they should have right up front if the owners want to engender trust. The players should also wake up, smell the coffee, and realize baseball does have salary caps. There are hard caps on the draft and international signings. The luxury tax acts as a de facto soft cap. Yet there is no salary floor, and baseball players’ take from the league’s revenue is lower than that of their NFL, NBA, and NHL buddies. They’d actually potentially be better off if they drew a less hard line on the issue.
Regardless, in the short term, both sides need to show some damned flexibility before having a season becomes an impossibility. The short term money loss is one thing, for both sides. However, the NBA and NHL are progressing toward restarting/finishing their seasons. If they succeed, and baseball fails, the PR hit will be huge…akin to the widespread “a pox on both your houses” feeling in the population after the 1994 work stoppage. That would cause long term damage to the image of the sport.