Nine days after a marathon negotiating session that left everyone involved tired and worn out, Major League Baseball and the MLBPA entered the negotiating room early Tuesday morning with a chance to save Opening Day. MLB was pressuring the union to finalize an agreement in the middle of the night for a new collective bargaining agreement. Behind the scenes, team officials channeled upbeat whispers to anyone who passed them on to the public. And yet, on the other side of the table was a union that was never going to accept an offer that it considered deficient.
“They have to stop treating us like we’re idiots,” one veteran player told ESPN.
Communication, true and substantive, implies much more than speaking, presenting, proposing. Listening is a skill that has been in short supply during MLB’s lockout of its players, and the unwillingness to change that paradigm is one of the main reasons baseball is here today, threatening to immolate itself to the view of all
Commissioner Rob Manfred canceled the first week of the regular season on Tuesday after the sides failed to reach a new agreement before a self-imposed deadline to end a lockout now approaching 100 days. He had warned weeks before about the “disastrous outcome” of having games lost, and here he was in Jupiter, Florida, after more than a week of negotiations had gone completely sideways, standing in front of a microphone, trying to make the league’s offer was substantive enough.
For the league, it was. For players, their too-low competitive breakeven tax thresholds led them to walk away from the league’s final offer and a cloud of uncertainty: “We’re not lying.” Owners have to believe the players when they say this, because making the alternative doesn’t lead to anything good.
Players are always emboldened by the league’s stance, both in these negotiations and before. The first statement of the MLBPA in response to the MLB announcement was to accuse the league of trying to “break up our fraternity of players.” While any union is at risk of splitting, especially when paychecks are missed, strong evidence points in the direction of player solidarity to challenge him. Star players have expressed to the point guards their willingness to miss an entire season. The union statement concluded: “As in the past, this effort will fail. We are united and committed to negotiating a fair deal.”
There has always been a fundamental disconnect between owners and players, and in these negotiations it has become increasingly apparent. Everyone needs to talk less and listen more. There is no problem so fundamental that it justifies putting at risk not just the first week of the season, but its entirety. Compromise is within reach, and the words of the players and the commissioner on Tuesday provided a road map to achieve it.
For months, as the union filed a series of requests, league officials wondered what the union really wanted to accomplish. Players have been saying it all along, a point executive subcommittee member Andrew Miller reiterated Tuesday: “The whole point of these negotiations is to increase competition.”
The union provided four clear principles that offered unlimited opportunities for problem solving: competition, fixing service time manipulation, paying players early, and removing spending restrictions. MLB tried to address each, first through proposals with a minimal chance of adoption, and eventually with more serious approaches. Only when the clock ticked down to the MLB deadline did it feel like a real compromise, even on things that should have been shared goals.
There were some hits. MLB agreed to the union’s proposal to give a full season of service time to the top Rookie of the Year finishers, even if they start the year in the minor leagues. The implementation of a five-team lottery draft was another victory. The best example was the league’s willingness to move from a 14-team playoff proposal to the union’s preferred 12. Players feared that 14 would decrease the inclination of teams to spend on free agency because they could sneak into the playoffs with mediocre records.
That playoff expansion, valued by the league at $100 million for 14 teams and less for 12, is a key addition for owners, and it’s even more of a lever now that Manfred says the league will drop games. Bruce Meyer, the union’s chief negotiator, reiterated that regardless of how many games the league cancels, he expects players to be paid for a full 162-game season. The union will drop the expanded playoffs from any deal that doesn’t include them.
The longer the league waits to compromise in certain areas, the more games it loses. The more games he loses, the less likely he is to pay 162. And the prospect of losing hundreds of millions in additional postseason revenue over the course of a deal should provide enough motivation to listen to players when they say something.
If somehow that’s not enough, consider the other more prominent point of influence left for gamers: the rebates paid to regional sports networks that carry local broadcasts for games that weren’t played. Depending on the team, avoiding the bonuses requires between 138 and 150 broadcast games. It provides the basis for a widely shared opinion among players: that due to the refund threshold and low attendance in April, teams are perfectly fine missing the first month of the season.
MLB has announced the delay of the 2022 regular season after MLBPA player leaders agreed not to accept Major League Baseball’s final proposal.
Teams must believe the players when they say that they will use the last carrots available to them. And in return, players must clearly hear all the clues that Manfred shared publicly on Tuesday. For all the platitudes blown away during his news conference — “Concern for our fans is at the top of our list of considerations,” he said unconvincingly — it managed to give a glimpse of the league’s priorities. .
“We have a payroll disparity problem,” he said.
Whether that’s an issue is debated (there’s almost no annual correlation between payroll and earnings), but still, this is a listening exercise, and the payroll disparity is clearly important to owners. There are multiple solutions that do not involve an artificially low competitive equilibrium tax, which exists more to impede spending than to promote competitive equilibrium. The union proposed incentivizing lower-spending teams to win through extra draft picks. The commissioner’s discretionary fund could help subsidize low-income franchises. Elegant solutions abound; Manfred highlighting concern should be enough to force the syndicate to help find them.
Removing Manfred’s rhetoric helped find another problem. “The last five years,” he said, “have been very difficult years from a revenue perspective for the industry given the pandemic.” Manfred was rightfully roasted for this statement, which conflated the losses teams say they suffered during the COVID-shortened 2020 season with the years that surrounded it. The 2017, 2018 and 2019 seasons were huge financial successes during which franchise revenues and values skyrocketed, increasing more than $500 million in average value ($1.3 billion to $1.85 billion), according to Forbes. Arguing that the sport suffers from revenue problems the day it canceled the very things that make the sport rich didn’t exactly register as genuine.
And yet, if the owners are really worried about the current income, the players should offer a solution. If the luxury tax (CBT) really is the most divisive issue, players can give up lower thresholds in the first two seasons of a deal in exchange for higher ones later on. The league indicated its desire to chart this course with its five-year proposal of $220 million, $220 million, $220 million, $224 million and $230 million. Something closer to the league’s desire for the first two years (say, $222 million and $227 million) and more in line with the union’s request for the last three ($237 million, $247 million and $257 million) gives the tie short-term revenue to fix it while expanding CBT in later years to be more in line with revenue growth.
The final question is a leap of faith on the union’s part, a bit of trust that the league hasn’t necessarily earned through its treatment of players. “My deepest hope,” Manfred said, “is that we reach an agreement quickly.” For months, both sides have accused the other of not wanting to reach an agreement, and it has been one of the most insidious sides of the negotiation, this notion that their efforts were little more than a futile exercise.
It’s a deeply cynical premise and one that gets more dangerous every day. The consequences of not reaching an agreement in the coming weeks are devastating. Manfred will cancel more games. The ability to reschedule games and make players pay for 162 is going to become near-impossible logistics. The longer they wait, the more it will jeopardize any kind of season.
This is not a mock Chicken Little; The baseball sky is falling metaphorically, and now that Manfred has put game cancellations in motion, urgency is the best method to stop it. Otherwise, the sides will dig in, due to pride and spite and emotions having the ability to twist the 2022 season completely off its axis. Every day that there is no game, players theoretically lose a projected salary of $21 million. Every day that there is no game, teams are closer to having to provide refunds to their regional sports networks.
Just as it’s time to talk, it’s even more imperative that players and owners listen to each other, that their words go not through the cochlea of doubt but through understanding. If the players insist they can be ready in a three-week spring training, the league needs to give it serious thought. If the owners say they need additional doubleheaders to make up for this week of lost games, the union needs to help make it happen.
Not that any of this is strange. In 2020, during the scariest stages of the pandemic, these same parties figured out how to turn a three-week spring training and doubleheader-heavy schedule into a real season. None of it was ideal, but the potential fallout from Manfred’s cancellations doesn’t exactly scream normality, either.
The substitute for diplomacy is chaos, something baseball cannot afford. When even a deadline cannot encourage agreement, it is clear that the problems are deep and the approach requires modification. There is a solution here, a deal to be struck, a deal still within reach, a way to avoid the “disastrous outcome” predicted by Manfred. They can see it, taste it, even hear it. All they have to do is listen.