The MLB Players Union could be sabotaging a potential 2020 season over money.
I wrote yesterday that money could be the big sticking point in whether a 2020 MLB season takes place. The latest news indicates that not only is that true, but that the sides could be farther apart than we realized.
The league offered a proposal on Tuesday that called for players to take pay cuts off their prorated salaries for 2020, with the lowest-paid players taking only minimal cuts, but the highest-paid players getting affected significantly. The Players Union wasn’t going to go for that, of course, but the collective response from the players doesn’t inspire much confidence.
Instead of negotiating, the union will instead offer its own proposal that completely ignores what MLB has offered thus far. Its proposal will call for a longer season than what the league has suggested, and of course it will call for players to receive their full prorated salaries. The players are apparently quite adamant in their refusal to take pay cuts.
Washington Nationals pitcher Max Scherzer, who sits on the union’s executive subcommittee, tweeted yesterday that “there’s no reason to engage with MLB in any further compensation reductions.” If the players wanted to send a message, it’s coming across loud and clear.
Players Off Base
The players previously agreed to play for their prorated salaries in whatever version of a 2020 season is played, meaning they’d get paid based on how many games there are. If it’s an 82-game season, as MLB has proposed, players would get slightly more than half of their full-season salaries since it would be slightly more than half of a 162-game season. In other words, they’d get paid at the same rate as they would be in a regular season.
The league insists that the agreement leaves the door open for good faith negotiations on further salary reductions if games are played in empty stadiums. The Players Union adamantly disputes that, of course, stating their agreement to play for prorated salaries was the full agreement with no room for further negotiation.
But the players act like agreeing to that was a major concession on their part. Scherzer’s tweet confirms that, saying they “refuse to accept a [second] pay cut.” But can they really have expected to be paid their full-season salaries when they only play half a season? That would be unreasonable and a total non-starter. The players agreeing to prorated salaries was just common sense, not a concession or a pay cut.
It’s also not unreasonable for MLB to want to discuss pay cuts considering the circumstances. According to Forbes, gate receipts and other ballpark revenue accounted for $4.125 billion of MLB’s revenue in 2019, which works out to a little more than 39 percent of the league’s total revenue. If games are played without fans, which seems inevitable at this point, that revenue is gone.
Teams will still have money from broadcast deals and sponsorships, but losing more than a third of your revenue is going to require expenditure cuts. Opponents will point to the fact that many owners are billionaires, but the owners’ net worth means nothing here. Much of that is tied up in their ownership in the team and other assets, so it’s not as if they have billions in cash on hand.
For better or worse, MLB teams are businesses. They must operate as such, meaning their expenditures cannot exceed their revenues. Expecting owners to keep expenditures the same and simply cover the losses themselves is silly, especially when many teams aren’t even owned by one individual. Profits have been good in recent years, but losing 39 percent of revenue is tough for any business.
Teams have other expenditures besides player salaries, too. They must pay the salaries of their operations and ballpark staff, maintain the leases on their stadiums and, hopefully, continue to pay their minor leaguers. Unfortunately the Oakland Athletics are about to stop paying their minor league players, and many staff are facing pay cuts or furloughs. The highest-paid major leaguers refusing to take pay cuts looks pretty bad in the face of that.
MLBPA Losing the PR Battle
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There are fans who fall on both sides of this dispute, but the Players Union is losing in the court of public opinion. Their mistake is making this all about money and not even trying to hide that fact. They look like a bunch of multimillionaires whining about not getting their full salaries, which sounds out of touch when many Americans are struggling through this pandemic.
Even when they talk about other issues, such as safety and testing, players still can’t leave money out of the equation. Instead of saying they’re concerned about their safety and their family’s safety while playing during the pandemic, they say they’re concerned about their safety and their family’s safety while playing for less money during the pandemic. In reality, the players seem to care about very little other than their money.
Just look at MLBPA’s reported counter-proposal, which isn’t much of a counter-proposal at all if they’re going to ignore what MLB submitted. Instead of negotiating, the players are not only going to demand their full prorated salaries, but they’re also asking for a longer season. If they really care about safety, that’s a funny way of showing it, especially when many are predicting a second wave of the pandemic in the coming months.
There’s plenty of opportunity for the players to get on the right side of this. If they would be willing to discuss pay cuts in exchange for teams keeping their operations, ballpark and minor league staffs and players on full salary and benefits for the duration of the season, that would go a long way. It would look like they care about other people and not just their own money, and it would help out thousands of employees and minor league players. But that would make too much sense.
The worst-case scenario for both sides would be for there to be no agreement at all. A lost 2020 season would anger the fans and harm the game in much the same way the 1994 strike did. Teams lost a chance at a World Series, players lost chances at more career numbers, and both sides lost the trust and respect of many fans.
But sadly, I don’t think the Players Union cares about any of that. When MLB wanted to institute a salary cap in 1994, the players wouldn’t budge and ultimately went on strike. They eventually won, as no salary cap was put in place. Knowing that, I think the MLBPA is willing to forgo a 2020 season rather than give up any ground to the owners.
Their so-called counter-proposal to the league is evidence of that. In a negotiation, both sides have to make concessions to reach a mutually beneficial agreement. Instead, the players are demanding more by asking for a longer season on top of their full prorated salaries. If they won’t deal, the league isn’t going to give in entirely.
A lost season would look bad for both sides and would be financially harmful to both sides. But the MLBPA is definitely looking like the more unreasonable party here, and they don’t seem to care about the good of the game, the fans, the minor league players or the employees. They only care about their top players getting as much money as possible, and that won’t be a good look for them in the long run.