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Jockeying for position during a pandemic

Major League BaseballWith MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred meeting with MLBPA head Tony Clark to discuss a 2020 MLB season launch, the main topic was player safety in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. What’s really going on: a battle for leverage when negotiating the next collective bargaining agreement.

The meeting yesterday was the first phase in talks about launching the 2020 MLB season. On Monday the owners approved a plan that calls for an 80-game season beginning on the July 4 weekend, with teams training and playing (for the most part) out of their hometown ballparks sans fans. Players would report for a three-week training camp and play under heavily supervised circumstances, with an abundance of care and protocols in place to protect support staff in case of a COVID-19 positive test. We reported on these measures over the weekend.

From the players side, there seems to be cautious enthusiasm about a return to play. Two big issues: player safety (the topic of yesterday’s meeting) and adequate pay. In March MLB and MLBPA came to an agreement in the issue of pay during the 2020 MLB season, calling for prorated salaries but also assuming fans would eventually be allowed back into the ballparks. With it increasingly looking like we won’t see fans in ballparks this season, owners are proposing a 50-50 revenue split based on the likelihood that a partial season would yield less in broadcast revenues and no gate and concessions receipts.

Both Clark and agent Scott Boras say the issue of compensation for the 2020 MLB season is settled. The owners disagree, saying a 50-50 revenue split is fair, arguing that they’re in a position to lose as an industry upwards of $4 billion if there is no season. Given that we’ve not seen specific numbers on what would be involved in a 50-50 split, it’s impossible to know how much both sides are giving up.

But it’s clear that this battle isn’t about a 50-50 split for a partial 2020 MLB season: it’s all about retaining power in anticipation of the next round of negotiations for the next collective bargaining agreement. The current CBA ends on Dec. 1, 2021, which means we’ll see plenty of negotiations come next year. From USA Today:

The players will lose everything but the $280,000 they’ll have received by May 24 if there is no season. But if they agree to a pay cut, they believe they’ll be losing their rights and leverage in upcoming talks with their collective bargaining agreement expiring on Dec. 1, 2021.

“I believe the season depends largely on the information the union leadership receives,” Boras said. “I think the union leadership and the players’ intentions have never been more on the same page. This is the most galvanized the players have been on a subject, and their support of the union leadership has never been better.

“The players want to play. The owners, at least the ones I talk to, want to play, too.

“Let’s don’t waste any more time. It’s time to go.”

Indeed, MLB management has been working for months on the prep work for this deal. Taking control of Minor League Baseball and imposing their will on a valued vendor is one indication of MLB management flexing its muscle. So, too, was the five-year collective bargaining agreement with umpires: MLB got what it wanted in terms of robo-umps. Both endeavors were undertaken with an eye toward 2021 labor negotiations.

One thing we do know: if an MLB team can’t play out of their home ballpark, they’ll be able to play out of a spring-training facility. Florida had already approved sporting events sans fans, opening the door to the Toronto Blue Jays playing out of Dunedin should travel to and from Toronto be too cumbersome due to a mandatory 14-day quarantine imposed by the federal government on those arriving from out of the country. Yesterday Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey announced a stay-at-home order that prohibited sports teams from practicing would expire Friday, clearing the way for MLB teams to set up camp in spring-training facilities. Of course, the teams must adhere to best practices when it comes to social distancing and transmission mitigation. The news, as you might expect, was welcomed by the Arizona Diamondbacks:

“I was pleased to hear the Governor’s comments on the state’s willingness to allow sporting events in a controlled environment,” Diamondbacks President Derrick Hall said via press statement. “We have been in constant communication and he has consistently shown cooperation and support to us and league leadership. Both he and I have made it clear we are more than willing to be part of a solution if there is a need for us to host more teams or games.”

Not every governor is eager to allow MLB teams to open training camp at home ballparks, however, and we may see a situation where some teams are based at their hometown ballparks and some at their spring-training facilities. Those facilities are expected to open in any case to house a “taxi” squad of minor leaguers who would be called up in case of injury or other circumstances.

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