For weeks, it seemed as if negotiations between Major League Baseball and the Players Association over the economics of a pandemic-shortened season were operating on separate tracks without regard for the issue that mattered most to the other side.
Now, it appears there might not be further negotiations at all.
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MLB rejected the union’s proposal for a 114-game season and full prorated pay for the players and $100 million in deferrals if the postseason is canceled, a source confirmed Wednesday. The owners weren’t expected to go for that, just as the players last week predictably vetoed MLB’s plan for sliding-scale secondary pay cuts in an 82-game schedule.
But the sides haven’t scheduled another round of talks, and MLB reportedly is ready to discuss exercising its authority to unilaterally implement a roughly 50-game season if the union doesn’t relent in its refusal to redraw a March 26 accord in which the players agreed to prorated salaries based on games played, a concept (the union viewed it more as a threat) that was floated Monday night through an ESPN report.
While forcing the mini-season on the players — assuming MLB gets clearance from medical experts and state/local government officials — would guarantee that there’s at least some baseball played this year, it might further poison an already toxic relationship between the sides a year before they will begin negotiating a new collective bargaining agreement.
There’s also a chance that some players — perhaps even a few marquee names — would choose to sit out rather than risk their health for two months of games.
So, how did it come to this?
The players insist that terms of the March 26 agreement must be honored and therefore won’t accept less than 100% of their prorated salaries. The league claims that owners will lose money for every game played without fans and with players making their full prorated salaries.
Yet the league’s proposal asked players to absorb secondary cuts totaling $850 million from their prorated pay, and the players’ counteroffer called for more games than the league’s targeted 82-game schedule.
Hello? Does either side listen when the other speaks? Are their Zoom calls on mute? Hello?
The March 26 pact does enable commissioner Rob Manfred to draw up a schedule “using best efforts to play as many games as possible while taking into account ... the economic feasibility of various alternatives.” Never mind that the union will contend that a 50-game solution doesn’t represent the league’s “best efforts.” The league seems to be hoping that the idea of a mini-season will compel the players to accept less than they initially agreed to.
Some back-of-the-napkin math: In 2019, player salaries totaled approximately $4.58 billion. Prorated over 82 games, that comes to $2.32 billion; prorated over 50 games, it drops to roughly $1.4 billion. In the league’s sliding-scale proposal, the players would average a 60% reduction from their full prorated salaries for 82 games, shrinking the total pool of money to — you guessed it — roughly $1.4 billion.
It seemingly will be up to the players, then, to choose between playing 82 games and accepting an additional pay cut or 50 games at 100% of their prorated salary.
It’s unclear where the negotiations go from here or which side makes the next move.
One thing is certain: A breakthrough must happen within the next few days if MLB will meet its goals of resuming spring training by the middle of June and opening the season by Fourth of July weekend.
In a letter obtained Monday by The Inquirer in which Phillies full-time employees were informed of salary reductions, managing partner John Middleton wrote that he’s still “hopeful that we will see baseball at Citizens Bank Park this summer,” albeit without fans.
But Middleton also stated the Phillies are bracing to lose “substantially more than $100 million” this year and noted that gate-related sources — tickets, food and merchandise concessions, parking, and sponsorships — account for 40% of the team’s revenues, a figure that is consistent with league-wide numbers stated by Manfred.
Players want a more thorough audit of the owners’ books. It’s unlikely they will get it, at least not within the time frame for reaching a 2020 return-to-play agreement.
Although the players have raised the idea of salary deferrals to assist with teams’ reduced cash flow in a shortened season, economic experts concur that it’s unlikely owners would agree to take on debt in future years, especially given the likelihood that the financial toll of the coronavirus will reverberate beyond 2020.
The league also rejected the players’ 114-game proposal on the basis that it would have pushed the postseason into November. Amid fears of a second wave of the coronavirus, and with the bulk of the league’s national TV money coming in the playoffs, MLB strongly prefers to wrap up the World Series by late October.
And while the focus of the negotiations has been on economics, there’s still the matter of playing during a pandemic that has killed 108,000 people in the United States.