The KC Royals and their fans eagerly await the resumption of baseball. This week could be a make or break point for the 2020 season.
For the KC Royals and the rest of baseball, these last few days of May could, when the book closes on 2020, turn out to be the defining week of the year. The fate of the season, at least that part within the collective control of MLB and the players, is at stake.
Delivery of the league’s latest economic proposal to the Major League Baseball Players Association (the union), an offer undoubtedly encompassing how the 30 clubs want to pay the players, is anticipated Tuesday. The term “latest” is necessary and accurate considering the parties’ late March agreement gave the players a $170 million pool to be divided among them as they see fit if no 2020 games are played, and prorated salaries based on the number of game actually played if there is a 2020 season of any kind.
But that was then, and this is now. As discussed previously in this space, the league believes the March agreement didn’t substantively and conclusively address the economic consequences of playing games without fans. Empty ballparks are a certainty now, at least for part of any season, and with empty seats will come empty game-generated revenue coffers. The financial hit for the clubs? Enormous.
The clubs base their argument on a clause of the March agreement requiring the parties to confer in good faith concerning the economic issues arising from fanless contests. The union doesn’t seem to dispute the existence of such language, but disagrees about its meaning and contends the specific compensation-related language of the agreement resolved all player pay questions.
A formal 50-50 revenue sharing proposal from the clubs for 2020 is sure to fail. The players have never accepted revenue sharing proposals and probably never will, viewing the concept as in essence a salary cap and, as such, financial poison for them and an economic feast for the clubs. (Imagine how much the small-market KC Royals would love revenue sharing).
This simmering controversy is sure to come to a full boil if the union finds a straight-up revenue sharing offer when it opens the league proposal Tuesday. Simply put, the players aren’t going to accept a pure revenue sharing deal. That could steer the controversy to arbitration, baseball’s primary method of resolving disputes and a “winner take all” process; unlike mediation, arbitration’s alternative dispute resolution cousin, arbitrators split nothing and adopt only one party’s position. There is no middle ground.
But arbitration takes time, a commodity in short supply if baseball is to meet its now long-rumored goal of starting Spring Training 2.0 June 10 with an early July Opening Day to follow. Arbitrators don’t make decisions in a vacuum–they typically require briefs, argument, and occasionally testimony. Then they decide, sometimes in days, sometimes in weeks. And each passing day without resolution incrementally reduces the likelihood of 2020 baseball.
There may, however, be a less drastic and time-consuming path. A report Sunday night suggested the league may substitute an alternative to pure revenue sharing and that the players may propose that they still receive the prorated salaries they contend were previously agreed to but agree to defer part of those salaries to future payments. That would decrease the clubs’ short-term financial pain, a prospect smaller revenue teams like the KC Royals might find palatable.
That scenario could open the door to a quick agreement, at least in principle with the details to be hammered out in the coming days without a time-robbing resort to arbitration. (Such an ending to the compensation dispute has nothing to do, of course, with clearing the many pandemic-driven health and safety hurdles, some of which can be cleared only with applicable governmental approval).
A deal guaranteeing the players prorated salaries tied to games played and allowing the owners to pay some of that money now and some later makes sense: the players eventually get the money they contend the clubs agreed to pay, the clubs get some immediate cash flow relief, both sides avoid the huge risk of arbitration, and, presuming the resolution of health and safety concerns, baseball gets played in 2020.
If, on the other hand, management and labor can’t get together, prolonged pointless negotiations and alternative dispute resolution may take too long and destroy any hope of 2020 baseball. Baseball took a hard hit from the 1994-95 strike; in these times, fans will surely be far less tolerant of a season ending labor dispute. Even those of the KC Royals, some of the most loyal fans in the game.
Resolution of the current compensation dispute between players and clubs will move baseball several steps closer to a 2020 season; further disagreement could delay resumption of the game until next year.