An owner-player salary fight could be looming

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Back in March, Major League Baseball and the MLBPA reached an agreement over pay for the 2020 season. The upshot:

  • The league would advance the players a lump sum payment of $170 million which players would divide amongst themselves via means they determine appropriate;
  • If there is no season, the players get to keep that money but do not get any more; but
  • If the season is played, players will receive their salaries on a pro-rata basis based on the number of games played. Presumably, whatever the player got out of that $170 million will be backed out of that since it was characterized as an “advance.”

Seems pretty straightforward, but it seems now that the owners are not too keen on it.

We heard the first rumblings about this in mid-April, when there was a report that at least one owner, Jeff Wilpon of the Mets, was expecting that the league would approach the players about further concessions in the event the season begins.

Now we’re hearing some more rumbling. From Evan Drellich of The Athletic:

Some league officials and team executives believe the best plan for baseball in 2020 would include a totally revised economic system — a revenue-sharing arrangement between the players and teams, if only for one year.

Their argument: No one has any idea how many tickets will be sold to 2020 games, if any; to promise players a certain salary ahead of time could leave either party overly exposed to an extreme outcome.

This, as Drellich notes, could lead to a huge fight that could imperil whatever can be salvaged of the 2020 season.

The reason: there was, as noted above, already a deal. That deal creates some pretty big downside for the players if there is no season given that the $170 million lump sum represents less than 4% of overall payroll from 2019 once you figure in bonuses and benefits and stuff. That downside, the players gambled, would be offset by the upside of pro-rata pay should some portion of the season be played. The players position, I suspect, would be “If the owners didn’t like that deal, perhaps they shouldn’t have made it.”

It’s also worth noting that the matter of revenues, which would necessarily be the basis for any revenue sharing deal, is historically fraught with ambiguity. Owners only share certain revenue figures with players, not all. They also have a ton of revenue sources which they will likely argue should not be subject to any deal for 2020. The Braves, for example, own a massive real estate development around their park that, in many ways, benefits from the playing of baseball games there. So do the Cardinals. Will players get a cut of that too? If not, why not? How about media deals? How about those business partnerships with sports books? How about the money that comes in from so-and-so company being “the official so-and-so company of Major League Baseball?”

None of this is to say that some novel, alternative arrangement isn’t theoretically better for everyone involved for 2020. It may be. We’re in uncharted waters. There could be win-wins to be found here if they go back to the table and figure one out.

The problem is that it’s taken decades of bloody battle and incalculable hours — probably better measured in years — at bargaining tables simply to get to the system in place. Now, with everyone sort of penciling in a new Opening Day in less than two months, they’re expected to reinvent the wheel? Especially after a deal has already been reached and especially when it’s one (a) initiated by the owners, who have a track record of trying to sucker the players whenever possible; and (b) revolves around a metric — revenue — that is probably harder to capture and agree upon than any other?

Good luck with that.