The Astros agreed to open their facilities in Houston and West Palm Beach for individual player workouts as The Season That Might Be continued to stumble out of the batters box. Players are allowed to work out individually, not as a group, as the team looks to hopefully return from the COVID-19 shutdown that halted their season.
Players Union Chief Tony Clark
(c) Getty Images
This is a step in the right direction but it is not much of one. Without a formal agreement between the MLB owners and the players' union on a basic outline for an abbreviated season, the second spring training cannot get started.
The union consented back in March to be paid only a pro-rated salary to compensate for the games missed due to the shutdown. Suddenly, the owners realized how badly they could be hurting in this deal and has since tried to get the union to move off that agreement.
The opening proposal called for a 50/50 revenue sharing split, something that would create its own can of worms as MLB has never openly revealed their books to the union. The owners claim they'll lose their shirts without a live gate, along with parking and vending revenue.
Frankly, if the big leagues were played without television money but in a full house every night, they would hurt a lot worse. National and regional rights carriage has been the mothers milk of baseball revenue for the past 40 years. That's what allows the Yankees to send five Brinks trucks over to Gerrit Cole's house to sign him away from the Astros. It isn't because Yankee Stadium has a higher seating capacity than Minute Maid Park. They have a much better tv deal.
It's disappointing that MLB pretends this isn't so when it is blatantly obvious. Crying poor only makes you wonder if the owners would rather not play a season at all if they can avoid the blame.
With the opening offer soundly rejected, the owners returned Tuesday with their second offer - one that provides a sliding scale that only Bernie Sanders would love. The players making the least would be paid a larger part of their salaries while the top stars would lose a significant percentage of their pay.
Reaction from players was swiftly negative. The union says they will make a counter offer in the coming days. I suspect it will be one with some pay concessions in return for a laundry list of pet demands that were left on the cutting room floor during the latest collective bargaining agreement. I suspect this, too, will be turned down. The players also say they are unhappy with some of the steps in the player health and safety part of the proposal, pointing out that the players are the ones taking on a risk of infection by playing the sport.
Unfortunately, what was once a unified sport responding to a health crisis has become just another collective bargaining squabble, like the ones that led to lockouts in 1981 and 1994.
One suggestion I heard was to agree to play but defer payment on some of the 2020 salary until 2021, giving the owners a hedge against losses while asking players to take less now with an assurance they will be made whole later.
It would be a tragedy for the sport if they did not try to get a season in. Not only would there be bad public relations, particularly as the other major sports appear to be making progress toward a return to action, but it might cause lucrative broadcast deals to be cancelled or negotiated lower for failure to provide a programming product.
It's one thing to tell business partners "I can't" and another to tell them "I won't". Sports like the UFC and WWE were able to meet their tv obligations despite having large sweaty people breathing heavily on each other and sometimes drawing blood without any social distancing. They understood their real money is made through television rights, not the arena gate. Baseball owners would like you to think their sport is different but it's not.
So, hopefully the two sides will reach an agreement before too much time passes to salvage a season. Perhaps it is time for executives from ESPN, Fox Sports, etc. to get into the same room with the players and owners and explain to them how important it is for them to put a live product on television or risk having those lucrative pre-virus contracts ripped up and renegotiated, having been found in breach of those deals.
With each day, the sport is losing money just like a closed restaurant chain. In the meantime, players who are eager to return to the diamond work out in isolation.
- Bob Hulsey