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Major League Baseball is back from the pandemic, and by that I mean MLB’s revenues are once again setting records. After a brief pandemic-related break in what had been 17 consecutive seasons of record revenues — first the pandemic-shortened 2020 campaign and then 2021’s lower than usual attendance due to the coronavirus pandemic still, you know, existing — the league pulled in at least $10.8 billion in 2022, according to Forbes’ Maury Brown. That’s ahead of the previous record, set in 2019, of $10.7 billion in revenue.
Brown mentions that, “the business of baseball rebounded out of the pandemic faster than a ball off the Green Monster at Fenway Park,” and I want to focus on that for a moment. The reason being that MLB executives anonymously whined about how long it was going to take them to be able to recover from having to pay players what they eventually ended up paying them during the shortened 2020 campaign. Let’s rewind for a moment, to May of 2020:
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.
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.
As said in that piece, that wasn’t hyperbole or the dream of one Red Sox exec, as even in May there were leaks from front offices saying that they had been instructed to cut payroll for 2021 — a tightening of the belt that wasn’t really necessary, given fewer games were being played in 2020, but fewer dollars were being spent on players, too, since they agreed to have their pay scaled down to match the number of games being played.
The opposite of what this exec wishes for occurred, of course, with the Players Association standing their ground on a number of topics that this executive (and others like them) would have loved to shove aside, and even though MLB tried to force the issue by initiating a lockout that would not have been necessary at all had they simply negotiated in good faith at any point before the previous collective bargaining agreement expired. And even though the players didn’t just give in and let MLB sort itself out during the pandemic in the way the owners wanted to, the record revenue streak now stands at one heading into the 2023 season, anyway. Funny, that.
MLB’s revenue streams may change over time, but they have a knack for figuring that sort of thing out:
And yet, with a lockout in place and collective bargaining ongoing, what you see more of out there than “hey, MLB is figuring out how to adapt and evolve so they continue to thrive” is “oh no, the money is going to dry up.” After all, the latter is a stronger bargaining position with the players than the former, and we already know that, historically, MLB wants to cut into the players’ profits if they fear their own are going to be harmed. There’s the above [Peter] Ueberroth example, sure, but also, as Craig Goldstein wrote last year, MLB loves to privatize the profits, and socialize the losses. If MLB believes there are risks in their future, they want the players to absorb them. Never mind that MLB is already working on plans to live a thriving, rich life that doesn’t need to rely on deals with RSNs to work, or that they can lean on franchise valuations to basically borrow infinitely at low interest in order to fund other sources of non-baseball revenue to keep from the players in real estate or what have you, even though the source of said revenues were, in fact, baseball-related. The players are the ones who need to concern themselves with a potential loss in profits here, and that’s all.
They might want the players to assume the risks when something isn’t yet set in stone, but that’s just so that they can take in a larger share of the eventual profits when they do find their solution. Imagine if the PA had agreed to simply sit back and let MLB do what they wanted in terms of subject prioritization in the interest of “saving” the league during a period of lower revenue. Something tells me the union wouldn’t have ended up with their proper share of the new media streaming rights deals — the ones that helped make up for the drop in revenue elsewhere, as Brown explained in his detailed look at where the league’s reported revenues are coming from. It was all posturing to try to make people think the sky was falling, but in the end, nobody bothered to look up.
We’ll see if the league — which has been oddly quiet on labor matters for some time now following the signing of the new CBA and their voluntary recognition of the minor-league bargaining subunit of the PA — figures out a new method for making everyone feel bad for them and take their side in labor and revenue issues against the players. When they do roll out their new plan a few years from now, just remember that they figured out a way to rebound from the pandemic and get back to business as usual with record-setting revenues ahead of schedule, even without “help” from the players. They’ll surely have the next situation under control, too, even if they want to pretend otherwise for pity points.
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