Is having a season or harming the union more important to MLB’s owners?

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Do Major League Baseball’s owners actually want to have a 2020 season? It’s a fair question to ask, especially given their behavior surrounding the negotiations with the Players Association on how to go about actually hosting a 2020 campaign. As Craig Calcaterra pointed out, all of the movement has been one-sided: the players keep making adjustments in their proposals, while MLB keeps repackaging the same proposal over and over with slightly different looks that change none of its material purpose, then going to the media to complain about the players. A media, in many cases, that is all too willing to repeat what they’re told by the league.

The owners claim having a season where the players are paid their full salaries — where “full” is “prorated salaries equivalent to the number of games played,” not “their full guaranteed salaries laid out in their contracts” — will bring financial ruin to the league. The players, not interested in taking a second pay cut after agreeing to the first one, asked for proof of the owners’ claims, for ownership to open up the books and show some receipts. The owners did not give them said proof: as Ken Rosenthal reported, the answers the PA did get back, according to a union attorney, were “so heavily redacted as to be essentially meaningless.”

MLB fears that a second wave of coronavirus in the fall could wipe out the postseason, which is where the league says most of its revenue for a season would come from. Like with retailers whose profits are almost entirely from the year-end holiday shopping push, a postseason would be what actually paid for the players’ salaries from the regular season: a regular season with a shortened or no postseason at all would just cost the teams money they claim they don’t have. The players have proposed an extended postseason both this season and in 2021 to help owners recover profits lost from whatever form the 2020 regular season takes, and also proposed deferrals on salaries if the postseason should be canceled as the league supposedly fears it could be. The former is something MLB itself wants, the latter, a fair solution to a legitimate concern. MLB, though, appears to want the players to take on all of the financial risk themselves and upfront, regardless of whether the postseason will actually be canceled or not, in addition to the health risks they’re being asked to take on in order to stage a season mid-pandemic.

Given all of this, and the things being fought over, and how public the fight has been from the owners’ side, we’re left to consider a couple of things. First, are the owners actually that concerned about a second wave of the coronavirus, or is it simply a negotiating point? The fact they’re claiming through the media and through commissioner Rob Manfred that the players’ latest proposal is a non-starter makes me lean toward the latter, especially when you take into account that we’re still in the midst of the first wave, with no end in sight. The league is showing little concern about the current form of the pandemic: how are we supposed to believe that this hypothetical second wave is keeping them awake at night?

Second, and this was what started us off here, but do the owners actually want there to be a 2020 season? It’s pretty easy to make an argument that they’re interested in one, sure: Major League Baseball seasons are extremely profitable, even if Bill DeWitt wants to pretend they aren’t, and a half-season or so with prorated salaries would also be profitable, since revenues would be down but so would costs. Is having a 2020 season more profitable for the league, though, than using the pandemic to skip it and enforce an anti-union agenda that will pay much larger dividends as soon as 2022?

The single largest inhibitor to MLB’s owners pocketing all of the ever-growing revenue streams — it took a literal pandemic to snap the league’s 17-year streak of record revenues — is a union that expects players to get a significant piece of the pie. The PA, even over the last two decades where it has taken a number of beatings at the hands of ownership, is still a financial force to be reckoned with because of the institutional policies it enacted in its youth under Marvin Miller. Basically every form of player compensation and acquisition avenues are under attack by teams, and service time is broken, but things could be a whole lot more broken were the union powerless.

If there is no 2020 season, the owners have paid nothing besides the $170 million from earlier this spring that the players split among themselves. They’re paying minor-leaguers poverty-level wages that amount to less than $1 million per team for the rest of the season. Yes, there is a larger cost in the sense the coffers will not be further filled with television or gate revenue if there aren’t any games to broadcast or attend, but that cost might not be that high if the league can break the union and its remaining power heading into and during the collective bargaining talks of 2021.

The owners might not be pulling in revenue like they’re used to, but nearly two-thirds of the league’s principal owners are billionaires, and plenty of them are billionaires a few times over. They have the ability to financially weather the lack of a season, and doing so now when so much of the season is already lost might even be preferable to many of them than a lockout for the 2022 season: especially since it wouldn’t actually be called a lockout, or referred to as a work stoppage, but could still be blamed on the players and their greed, regardless.

Sure, Mike Trout is loaded, and so are plenty of other MLB players, but even the richest are not “MLB owner” rich, and more importantly, the vast majority of MLB players are not wealthy. If they don’t receive checks they expected in 2020, and then the pandemic or the fallout from the pandemic trickles over into 2021 and that year’s potential season, and then there is the possibility of a lockout in 2022 if the union dares to ask for the things they’ve been itching to fight about for a couple of years now? That “vast majority” is going to be hungry to get paid, and plenty of players living a lifestyle their wealth bought them are going to be wondering when their next check is coming, too, in a way the billionaires won’t be worrying about.

The owners can take out loans using their immense net worth and collateral to do it, can focus on their other revenue sources — like, say, the ones they invest team revenues into, such as real estate, before pretending that baseball just isn’t profitable — or they can likely push for some kind of government bailout, as rich people and their businesses know that well isn’t drying up anytime soon regardless of who is president. They can continue to push the narrative that this is all the players’ doing, that there would be a season if only the players weren’t so greedy and standoffish. It would work a lot like every time the players strike or threaten to strike, or the owners lock the players out and try to make people think that locking the gates is the players’ fault, too, and not a power move by an ownership class attempting to batter their opponents into submission.

Maybe that’s what we’re seeing here, with MLB’s total lack of movement. They’d be happy with a 2020 season, sure, because short-term profits, but they’re also willing to give it up in order for an opportunity to paint the union and its members as greedy and self-serving, as not caring about baseball or America or whatever — as all of the things the owners themselves are actually guilty of. It would likely help them, both in terms of public pressure and in draining the players’ savings, to have no baseball this year heading into 2021, where the whole game will likely still be impacted, and into 2022, where a new CBA, or no CBA and no games, will exist.

The pandemic might have given the owners the chance to break the union in the way then-commissioner Bud Selig and the owners — some of whom still own teams today — were hoping canceling the World Series and bringing in replacement players for 1995 would. Selig might have seemed full of regret when he announced the cancellation of the Fall Classic, but the truth is that he was giddy for what this short-term sacrifice could pay him and his brethren in the long run. At the time Selig was announcing the cancellation of the ‘94 season, he was already thinking about bringing in replacement players in 1995, the institution of a salary cap, the end of free agency, and so on. Look around at what MLB has pushed during this postponed season start already, between shortening the draft, delaying international signings, shrinking the minors and the number of minor-league players, and tell me how this is any different… and if the threat of replacement players should MLB fail to get their way is less likely.

Maybe this is all reading too much into what MLB is thinking about 2020 and its importance, but the fact you can construct a case that the owners would find it beneficial to not have a season, given their behaviors and their posturing, is not a positive. Whether intentional or not, all of this looks as if it will benefit the owners in the long run, even if they take short-term losses. And while they can be averse to that sort of thinking when it benefits others, when we’re talking about their own bank accounts, you know that would pique their interest.

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