MLB’s owners want the players to shoulder their financial burden

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A few weeks back, Peter Gammons published a piece at The Athletic that focused on how the road back to normalcy in MLB was going to be three years’ long. COVID-19 is and will wreak havoc on MLB’s finances, so, the answer is, according to one anonymous Red Sox executive, to essentially ignore everything the Players Association would consider important in negotiations, in the interest of getting baseball back to normal as quickly as possible.

This isn’t some hyperbole coming out of me, either, check out the actual quote from the exec:

“In 2020,” the official continued, “we just have to try to get the game back. Then we have 2021 and 2022 to rebuild attendance and revenues, to determine where that takes free agency, arbitration, draft and other player compensations. Let’s be realistic — baseball is not going to be the same, just as the world as we know it won’t be the same. What we have to do now and in the next two years have to be focused on what we want baseball to be in 2023.”

MLB’s collective bargaining agreement expires after the 2021 season — next summer and fall were supposed to focus heavily on the MLBPA fighting back against the constant take take take of MLB’s owners, to negotiate a new CBA that would undo some of the damage of the agreements of the last 20 years or so. Areas the PA needed to focus on were free agency, arbitration, the draft, and “other player compensations.” Weird how those things should all be tossed aside according to this one exec for one of the game’s richest teams, but MLB’s own agendas — shrinking the minors, shrinking the draft, getting rid of international free agency to replace it with a leverage-crushing international draft — all get to take center stage mid-pandemic.

This also isn’t one random exec spouting his dream scenario of ignoring what the players want. This is going to look more and more like a coordinated effort from MLB’s owners as the pandemic drags on. Just Thursday, we got two new entries in the arena, courtesy a tweet from ESPN’s Buster Olney and a story from The Athletic’s Evan Drellich. Let’s start with the former:

So, MLB teams are expected to start requesting pay cuts for the 2021 season, even though, in 2020, MLB is either going to A) pay less than the guaranteed amount on players’ contracts thanks to a March agreement that set up prorated compensation based on the number of games actually played in the season or B) pay only the $170 million advance in payroll on the season that was split up among the union’s members, because there are no games. Even though MLB is already in line to cut about $300 million in spending teams budgeted for by shrinking the June draft, even though they’re not paying the players in full, even though they’re attempting to cut into the players’ pay even further, that’s not enough: they’re going to start coming for cuts to the guaranteed pay of veterans as well as arbitration-eligible players in 2021, too, before we even know what 2020 looks like.

This is where it’s good to remind you that nearly two-thirds of MLB’s principal owners are billionaires, and that the rest are damn close. That MLB ownership groups are made up of much more than just the principal owner, so the money floating around to help get through this pandemic is much higher than say, just Red Sox owner John Henry’s $2.6 billion net worth. That was $2.7 billion around the time he ordered the trade of Mookie Betts to cut payroll — as you can see, the pandemic has been very tough on the ultra-rich. I’m not sure how they’re going to pull through with dwindling resources like that.

Anyway! Henry and the rest can afford to pay players in 2021, and just logically speaking, asking players to take further cuts doesn’t make any sense with how MLB spreads around its revenues. Teams make far more each season than they pay to players, and players aren’t guaranteed to get their hands on certain slices of revenue, like that distributed by MLB from the BAMTech sale to Disney, or even the television money that teams rake in. This is a segue to the Drellich story, by the way:

Some league officials and team executives believe the best plan for baseball in 2020 would include a totally revised economic system — a revenue-sharing arrangement between the players and teams, if only for one year.

Historically, the union has abhorred revenue-sharing arrangements between players and teams, because in every other sport a promise of a salary floor for players comes with a maximum, too — a salary cap. The union would note that owners never share in their profits from selling teams, among other arguments. The sport’s last work stoppage, the 1994 strike, centered on owner efforts to implement a salary cap.

The sport’s books are not publicly available, making assertions about how much a team makes — or loses — difficult to verify. The league shares some financial data with the union, which the union has the right to challenge, but those numbers do not represent the entire picture. For example, the league and teams do not share details of their media deals with the union.

The players have to fight for every scrap against teams that are actively trying to screw them out of every dollar possible, teams that cry poor constantly but refuse to show the public their books, and the second that non-stop flow of secret revenue growth is halted, the league starts thinking about ways to make players shoulder more of the burden. That’s extremely unfair, and, as Drellich opines in his piece, likely a non-starter for the union even outside of the fact that the PA already thinks the payment agreement for 2020 is resolved thanks to the two sides talking in March. MLB, as we’ve discussed in this space, feels otherwise.

We’re going to see more and more stories like this trickling out, of MLB execs and owners floating ideas about ways to ease their financial suffering by taking more and more away from the players, who, yes, in many cases are loaded themselves, but not to the degree that the owners are. The owners are insulated from harm by this pandemic — again, John Henry’s net worth has dropped just $100 million over the course of two months of No Baseball, and he’s still got 26 of those left. If MLB resumes and the television dollars start coming in again, there is going to be plenty to go around with prorated contracts already agreed to. It’s just that the owners might have to dig into their pockets and past enormous revenues in order to make everything truly work, and that’s the thought they abhor. Pocketed revenues are supposed to remain pocketed, not utilized! Don’t you know anything about wealth hoarding?

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