We broke down what we know of the new Collective Bargaining Agreement yesterday. Today Yahoo’s Jeff Passan has a far more in depth look at the various provisions in the deal and provides a lot of behind the scenes stuff about how MLB and the union got from A to B.
There’s a lot to chew on there. A lot of minutiae and money talk that, truth be told, most fans don’t care too much about, even if it does have repercussions for how teams do business and, eventually, the product they put on the field. Passan deals with almost all aspects of that, concluding that, while this deal will ensure baseball for the next five years, it may very well lay the groundwork for future labor strife and a possible increase in differences between baseball’s haves and baseball’s have-nots going forward.
You should read it all if you care about this stuff, but there are two takeaways I have from all of it that, I think, suggest serious trouble ahead. Maybe not this year or next, but in future player-owner negotiations: (1) the union, for the first time ever, agreed to a hard cap on player compensation, in the form of a hard limit on international player bonuses; and (2) the union agreed to major provisions without securing player consensus. Both of these developments are described by Passan thusly:
The desire of a vocal segment of players to avoid an international draft at all costs was abundantly clear, and ultimately – over the objection of a number of top players and officials – the union took that position: No deal until there’s no draft. MLB saw an opportunity and instead got the cost containment it desired without having to spend a penny on the infrastructure a draft would necessitate. The league asked for a hard cap on money spent internationally and couldn’t believe its fortune: The union acceded, a stunning reversal from past negotiations when a hard cap of any kind, be it on team salaries, draft spending or international money, was rejected outright.
I and many others had opposed an international draft, but that its avoidance came at the cost of a hard cap was surprising. And, as I noted yesterday, that the cap is as low as it is — $5-6 million — was equally surprising. The owners got the cost containment that they wanted, did nothing to address the concerns they claimed they had about the exploitation of amateurs, and, for the first time in history, got a hard cap on spending. Even draft bonus slotting, which has been in place for a while, has some give and take to it that the new cap does not have.
But I’m more surprised to see that the union was not in solidarity when it came to all of this. Passan quotes one player, who he says speaks for many, who said the international draft negotiation was “hijacked” by a subset of players and that there is great disunity as to how it all turned out. This is new territory for the Players Union. While there has been some infighting among players in recent years with respect to drug testing, there has never been public disunity when it comes to pocketbook matters. The MLBPA’s power — the very reason it was able to beat the owners for over 30 years straight and become, arguably, the most successful union in all of organized labor — came by virtue of its solidarity. A solidarity that seems to be unprecedentedly absent this time around.
For now, this may not matter. A deal is done and there will be baseball for the next five seasons. But it’s easy to smooth over disagreements when everyone is rich. Right now baseball is flush with cash and revenues are increasing. What happens if that stops?
What happens if, as some have predicted, the cable money stops flowing into baseball’s coffers? ESPN has lost over a million subscribers in the past two months. People are cutting cords. I have a lot of faith in cable companies, large broadcast networks and sports leagues to find new ways to sell sports to people and do not predict a shocking doomsday, but the model that has driven baseball’s revenue for the past decade or two is not etched in stone. There will be flux and, if more pessimistic predictions come to pass, there could be a serious disruption in baseball’s revenue streams. An RSN could very well declare bankruptcy or decide that it would cost them less to simply breach a contract with a club or the league than to continue to pay them. Whatever happens, the only constant in media over the past 25 years has been change and there is no law saying networks have to pay baseball teams a billion dollars to show baseball games.
So, flash forward five years and presume, for the moment, that baseball’s revenues have been flat or falling. And say the owners decide that it’s time to revive their 1980s-90s strategy of capping salaries for major league players. Sure, the players will fight it, but they’ve lost the ability to say that hard caps are, by definition, unacceptable. They’ve caved on the topic for the first time, thus making any case they would make to the owners and to their own rank and file that much harder to articulate. Why, might a 2021 union member who was subject to a cap in 2017 think, is a cap that only really affects some veterans on his club such a bad thing? Maybe it’s OK? And why, might an owner’s representative at the bargaining table think, should we believe that Tony Clark won’t cave now? He came off of Marvin Miller and Don Fehr’s hard line in 2016. Maybe he will again. It’s worth a try!
All of which makes more work for Clark and the union to fight serious threats if they are presented to them, and the harder you have to work to shore up your own side in a negotiation, the less power you have to fight the other side. Clark will have to expend far more effort to argue harder and to rally his own troops now that he doesn’t have a baseline principle to which everyone is in agreement. And if that “hijacked” sentiment Passan noted above is any indication, Clark showed that he was either unable to generate solidarity on an important matter this year or, more worrisome, that he was uninterested in doing so. Is there any guarantee that he can do a better job later, when the threats are greater?
As I noted at the beginning, it’s good that we will have baseball, uninterrupted, for the next five seasons. It’s good that a deal was done. But the more we learn about the new CBA, the more it seems that reaching that deal cost the union quite a bit in terms of solidarity and principle. The players may not have to pay much if anything for that now, but bills always have a way of coming due.