Major League Baseball officials and Players Association leadership met by video conference for roughly two hours Tuesday.
Since then, the sides have retreated to their respective corners.
The stalemate might end Friday. But with the union expected to either counter the league’s proposal for further payroll reductions or present an entirely different economic plan for an abbreviated 2020 season, here’s where things stand: The owners contend that supplemental salary cuts are essential in a fan-free environment, while the players insist the prorated salaries to which they agreed in March should be sufficient.
Unless both sides budge from their entrenched positions, they will bring about the doomsday scenario of no baseball in 2020.
“This is very messy,” said Vince Gennaro, associate dean at NYU’s Tisch Institute for Global Sport, who has previously consulted for major-league teams. “There’s so many complicating factors. I wouldn’t count this as a sure thing that we’re going to see baseball this year.”
The union hasn’t revealed details of its proposal, but according to ESPN and The Athletic, it’s expected to be centered on playing more games (at least 100) than the league’s 82-game plan.
Just a hunch: The owners won’t go for that any more than the players embraced a second round of salary cuts that get progressively more severe for the highest-paid players. And the union liked that concept about as much as biting into a sour lemon.
For one thing, more games would push the regular season into October and the playoffs into November. With medical experts wary of a second wave of COVID-19 in the fall, MLB doesn't want to risk having to call off its postseason, the most profitable time of year for national TV revenue.
But owners claim that more regular-season games played without fans also mean greater losses in revenue. MLB commissioner Rob Manfred estimates that an average of 40% of teams’ revenues are gate-related — ticket sales, luxury suites, parking, concessions. It might be closer to 50%, according to Smith College economics professor Andrew Zimbalist, once sponsorships and other ancillary streams are figured in.
Players aren’t buying it, at least not until the owners open their books and offer proof. That’s unlikely to happen, certainly not within the next week, which is all the time the sides have to reach an agreement if they want to resume spring training by mid-June and open the season by the Fourth of July.
“[T]here’s no reason to engage with MLB in any further compensation reductions,” Washington Nationals star pitcher Max Scherzer said late Wednesday night in a statement released via social media. “We have previously negotiated a pay cut in the version of prorated salaries, and there’s no justification to accept a second pay cut based upon the current information the union has received. I’m glad to hear other players voicing the same viewpoint and believe MLB’s economic strategy would completely change if all documentation were to become public information.”
Scherzer is part of the union's eight-player subcommittee. It's worth noting that he's also represented by influential agent Scott Boras, who has directed his clients to vehemently oppose the additional pay cuts, according to an email that was leaked to the Associated Press on Thursday.
"Remember, games cannot be played without you," Boras wrote, according to the AP. "Players should not agree to further pay cuts to bail out the owners. Let owners take some of their record revenues and profits from the past several years and pay you the prorated salaries you agreed to accept, or let them borrow against the asset values they created from the use of those profits players generated."
Boras isn’t the first to propose a deferral system in which players would agree to secondary cuts to help owners with their cash flow in 2020 and get that money paid back to them in subsequent seasons either directly or through changes to the luxury-tax structure that would funnel additional money to the players.
But Gennaro doesn't view that as a practical solution, especially because it likely will take baseball several years to recover from the economic damage created by the coronavirus pandemic.
“I don’t see deferral as being any kind of material savings for the owners,” Gennaro said. “Maybe it eases the cash flow, but it doesn’t really make a lot of sense to me. It just adds to a franchise’s debt level, which is not something you want to do at a time like this.”
Players are quick to note that they are taking on health risks by returning this season. Some still have questions related to the frequency of COVID-19 testing outlined in MLB’s 67-page health and safety manual and the protocol for what happens if (when?) someone tests positive.
Complicating matters is the looming negotiation of a new collective bargaining agreement. The present deal expires after the 2021 season, and neither side wants to make concessions now for the sake of a partial season that it might regret later.
Then again, it behooves the owners and players to take a longer view. Because no matter how they slice it, all parties will take a financial hit in 2020. Things won’t be back to normal next year, either, even if fans are allowed back into ballparks.