Bring on the mini-season.
Roughly 24 hours after Major League Baseball made a new proposal that asked again for more salary concessions from players, the Players Association released a statement Saturday night effectively cutting off negotiations and requesting that commissioner Rob Manfred simply dictate when the season will begin and how many games will be played.
“It unfortunately appears that further dialogue with the league would be futile,” MLBPA executive director Tony Clark wrote in the statement. “It’s time to get back to work. Tell us when and where.”
Late Saturday night, MLB responded with a statement in which it expressed disappointment that “the MLBPA has chosen not to negotiate in good faith” and pledged to consult with the 30 team owners to “determine the best course to bring baseball back to our fans.”
MLB’s latest proposal, delivered on Friday, called for a 72-game season and guaranteed only 70% of the prorated pay that the players agreed to in March. Under that plan, players would receive an additional 13% of their pro-rata if the World Series is completed.
But the players have been adamant about not reopening the March accord and negotiating another pay reduction. Each of MLB’s pitches — from the sliding-scale plan last month to a 76-game offer last week and the 72-game bid Friday — has proposed paying players less than 100% of their pro-rata, all adding up to roughly 30% of their full-season salaries.
If the sides are unable to reach an agreement, Manfred is authorized under terms of the March pact to determine the length of a season in which the players’ salaries would be commensurate with the number of games played. MLB has indicated that such a season would consist of only about 48 to 54 games.
That resolution doesn’t appeal to either side. The players’ union could file a grievance that a mini-schedule wouldn’t represent “best efforts” by MLB to stage a season. Some players might even decide to sit out rather than risk injury and their health for a seven-week season that many fans will deem illegitimate. And the players will likely block the expansion of the playoffs to 16 teams, a change that the owners strongly desire.
Regardless, it seems more than ever that a mini-season will be the outcome.
“Since March, the Association has made clear that our No. 1 focus is playing the fullest season possible, as soon as possible, as safely as possible,” Clark wrote. “Players agreed to billions in monetary concessions to that end, and in the face of repeated media leaks and misdirection we made additional proposals to inject new revenues into the industry — proposals that would benefit the owners, players, broadcast partners, and fans alike.
“It’s now become apparent that these efforts have fallen upon deaf ears.”
The players’ most recent proposal — 89 games at full prorated pay — was made last Tuesday. The difference between the players’ aggregate salaries in that plan and in the 72-game MLB proposal is roughly $812 million to $1.28 billion, an average of $27.1 million to $42.7 million per team.
It seems increasingly unlikely that the sides will bridge that divide in time to play nearly half a season. Considering it will take about a week for players to reconvene for a “spring training 2.0” that would last roughly three weeks, the season won’t begin before the middle of July. The owners are insistent on ending the season in late September and the World Series in late October to avoid a second wave of the coronavirus.
Within those parameters, there would be only about 75 days to play a season — and that’s if an agreement could be reached in the next few days.
There aren’t any signs of that happening.
Instead, the back-and-forth between MLB and players has devolved into an email rock fight, the sides exchanging nasty communiques that have been leaked in the media rather than speaking face-to-face (even over Zoom). It represents a worsening of a relationship built on mistrust over nearly 50 years, and it doesn’t bode well for the negotiations of a new collective bargaining agreement that loom next year.
The owners’ insistence on seeking additional salary reductions stems from their claim that they will lose $640,000 per game played without fans. The players don’t trust that accounting and have asked for a thorough audit of the owners’ books.
Moreover, MLB contends that the March 26 agreement stipulated that further negotiations over player compensation might be necessary if games were played without fans.
“The MLBPA understands that the agreement reached on March 26th was premised on the parties’ mutual understanding that the players would be paid their full salaries only if play resumed in front of fans, and that another negotiation was to take place if Clubs could not generate the billions of dollars of ticket revenue required to pay players,” MLB said in its statement. “The MLBPA’s position that the players are entitled to virtually all of the revenue from a 2020 season played without fans is not fair to the thousands of other baseball employees that Clubs and our office are supporting financially during this very difficult 2020 season.”
Last week, St. Louis Cardinals chairman Bill DeWitt said that owning a major-league team “isn’t very profitable.” Similar comments have been made by Arizona Diamondbacks managing partner Ken Kendrick and Chicago Cubs owner Tom Ricketts, who recently described teams’ projected losses in 2020 as “biblical.”
Players point to the skyrocketing value of franchises in claiming that the owners are better equipped to shoulder the financial burden of a pandemic-shortened season. And that was even before ESPN reported Saturday that MLB reached a billion-dollar deal with Turner Sports to air playoff games beginning in 2022.
“The Commissioner has repeatedly threatened to schedule a dramatically shortened season unless players agree to hundreds of millions in further concessions,” Clark wrote. “Our response has been consistent that such concessions are unwarranted, would be fundamentally unfair to players, and that our sport deserves the fullest 2020 season possible. These remain our positions today, particularly in light of new reports regarding MLB’s national television rights — information requested from the league weeks ago but were never provided.”
Manfred guaranteed last week that there will be an MLB season in 2020.
It just won’t be one that anyone can get particularly excited about.