Here we go again.
For many fans, the 1994 strike seems so long ago. MLB and its players morphed into the unstoppable force and the immovable object, and for the first time in 90 years, the most hallowed tradition in American sports history, the World Series, evaporated like rain on Arizona pavement. So much damage occurred in the wake of the work stoppage, and so little was gained, that the 1994 strike became a template of what every subsequent CBA has tried, and succeeded, to avoid.
The strike was a frustrating time for fans. They felt forgotten while the league and its players scratched and clawed for dollar amounts many would never realize—for what was popularly thought of as a dream job. It shattered the fantasy that men selected for this most coveted position suited up purely for the love of the game, regardless of how many zeros were slapped across the paycheck. It pulled back the veil on team ownership as well. Didn’t they want to win for the city? To sit in their corvettes on Main Street as the confetti rained down? Making a profit was part of the deal, sure, but winning was foremost in mind, right? After all, this is BASEBALL!
It all got summed up thus: “Millionaires vs. Billionaires.”
And all this before social media.
Now here we are in 2020, the year that has brought us murder hornets, the death of Kobe Bryant, and, of course, the Coronavirus. And that ol’ spectre has risen again. Only this time, it gets the lovely circulation boost of Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, and other social media platforms.
The cause for this unwanted sequel is the fact that the last of those three disasters has forced the stoppage of baseball (along with just about everything), placing the players union and ownership in a distressingly familiar position: diametrically opposed, each with no interest in budging. The owners had initially set an agreement with the union to pay players prorated versions of their contracted salaries, based on when the season would start. Now, as things inch closer to normalcy, and the possibility of a season begins to take shape, MLB has decided to relitigate the deal. They have proposed further salary cuts to players, claiming that spectator-free games could cause the teams significant losses, to the point of endangering the viability of some franchises. Naturally, the players are taking issue with that. They say that playing a game where physical contact is inevitable and social distancing impractical at best, for a further reduced salary, is unreasonable. Or put another, much less eloquent way…
So, ya know: not the best way to defend your position, but keep in mind that Blake Snell is not a writer or PR expert. He’s being brutally honest, which, in a sport known for players talking in empty clichés and canned phrases, is honestly refreshing. Snell’s words are being heard in living rooms across America right now, while corporations are suddenly penniless, at the mercy of the pandemic, and taking it out on those who create the products and provide the services that enriched them in the first place. In a way, he’s just saying something that is irrefutably true. You signed a deal. You took a cut to make it work. Now the stakes have increased, but ownership demands you take another cut. Whether you’re a painter, retail worker, or baseball player, it’s simply not right.
So for the players, this should be an easy sell, right? After all, the OWNERS are trying to back out of the deal they agreed to. The OWNERS are the ones with a track record of bad faith negotiating and alleged collusion. The OWNERS are the billionaires in this equation!
It’s not though.
The MLBPA is far and away the strongest athletic union in all of American professional sports, rivaling any union in any industry. Its tradition of fierce advocacy for its players has led to some revolutionary benefits and protections, most notably the absence of a hard salary cap, something the NBA, NFL, and NHL cannot boast. It led the way for other major sports regarding how contracts are structured, how talent is acquired, and much more. Unfortunately, its recent habit of selling out its minor league and retired brethren, and leaving active players without much defense, has fueled the argument that it has regressed a bit in recent years. But its strength remains unmatched in today’s athletic climate.
That sword has two edges though, and the one they don’t like is headed right toward them.
Times are tough right now. Unemployment is skyrocketing as the Coronavirus continues to spread at a historic pace. Wages that had already been stagnant are now gone altogether, and people are generally going a little ‘stir crazy’ after locking down for months on end. The last thing anyone wants to hear right now is how players and owners are going to split up gaudy amounts of money amongst themselves, while ‘Indeed’ or ‘Glassdoor’ become our browser homepages.
The fact is, however, that while this debate is unwelcome, it is necessary. MLB ownership has a checkered past on bargaining in good faith or looking out for players, and the union has every right to take issue with the modification of deals that were already agreed to in the name of financial solvency. Revenue for MLB topped $10.7 billion last season, up from $10.3 billion in 2018. In fact, under the current CBA, the owners’ profits could reportedly exceed $5 billion—and the deal was struck only three years ago.
But this season, between the opening day delay and the real possibility of playing to empty seats, has rattled the proverbial cages. The owners seem overeager to use the latter issue as an excuse to cry poor and ask players to subsidize their losses with multiple season pay cuts.
This is, objectively, ridiculous. Not only are profits very generous to ownership, but the gate receipts they’re fretting over made up only 30% of the league’s revenue in 2017. Attendance has continued to decline since then, despite profits and revenue increases year over year. Losing one third of your revenue is still no joke from a business perspective, but even that argument begins to leak when you look at ever-increasing franchise values. To this point, only the lowly Miami Marlins can claim a sub-billion dollar franchise, and their $980 million valuation this year doesn’t exactly draw much sympathy.
And yet, here we are, blaming the players for the lack of product, while ownership continues to ask these players to pay for their troubles.