Hanging over the 2021 baseball season is a looming battle between labor and management
Back in June, when stadiums were empty and baseball fans were pining for the Game of the Week, the Game of the Night, or just any old game, Major League Baseball and its players union were staging a daily brawl over what form the 2020 season would take — if there would even be a season at all.
There were offers and counteroffers. There were accusations and threats. And there was plenty of made-for-TV rhetoric from both sides.
The Players Association charged MLB with employing "underhanded tactics to circumvent the union."
On June 10, MLB commissioner Rob Manfred was "100 percent" certain there would be a season. Five days later, he backtracked, saying he was "not confident" baseball would be played.
While the two sides slugged it out, the rest of us were in pandemic sports hell, tiring of vintage repeats (does a game from 2010 qualify as "classic"?) and actually wishing for the chance to endure a three-and-a-half-hour, nine-inning slog filled with 24 strikeouts and about five minutes of actual action. (And, no, scratching and spitting don't count as "action.") On June 23, MLB announced the imposition of a 60-game season, with no fans, at least to start, and a whole bunch of new rules designed to speed up/improve/enliven the sport. It was an exhausting process that at least yielded some baseball, albeit for only a few months.
It was a sprint. It was a nightmare. It featured a colossal foe that every team had to face. It was a disaster. It was a triumph.
It was a precursor.
As difficult as the 2020 season seemed thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic and the restrictions put in place to protect players, coaches and staff from the virus, things could get even more challenging moving forward. Trying to come up with a set of protocols to stage the '21 campaign will no doubt feature much of the same tough talk and posturing as the run-up to the 2020 season did. And then there is the looming Dec. 1 deadline, when the current collective bargaining agreement, hammered out by the Players Association and Major League Baseball four-plus years ago, expires. If you thought things were nasty last June, get ready for a potential battle royale over the next several months.
"This is going to be a two-round heavyweight fight," says James Dworkin, chancellor emeritus and professor in the Krannert School of Management at Purdue University and author of the book, Owners Versus Players: Baseball and Collective Bargaining. "Round One will come when the two sides try to figure out the 2021 season. Round Two will be the new collective bargaining agreement."
Like previous CBA slugfests, there will be claims and counterclaims. Players will likely try to cut down the amount of service time necessary to reach free agency and eliminate some of the chicanery teams employ in that area. They will probably want to increase the minimum salary. Owners will hope to cut back some of their pension obligations and try to put stronger limitations on team salaries. That is standard labor negotiation fodder.
The real story with this negotiation is how the business of baseball has become more, well, business-like over the past couple of decades as team ownership has completed its transition from family-run concerns to corporate structures with far more sophisticated mechanisms for managing costs. When the players union began its inexorable move away from the yoke of the reserve clause toward free agency and arbitration, it did so with an executive director — Marvin Miller — who outmaneuvered baseball's owners at every turn during his 16 years of service. It also had a rank-and-file collection of players committed to ending a hugely one-sided system.
Things have changed. MLBPA executive director Tony Clark et al. face a much more unified, sophisticated foe intent upon maximizing its share of a growing revenue pot. There is nothing in the CBA that mandates the percentage of gross revenues that must be devoted to players' salaries, but there are reports that over the past couple of years the number has hovered around 47 percent. That's not ideal, but it's not horrible, either. The key for the union will be whether it can get concessions that help players make more money through free agency or a higher minimum salary without surrendering too much in return to owners. Clark, who took over as executive director in December 2013, understands that nothing will be easy and that there is a good chance of a protracted battle that involves difficult negotiations about both 2021 and the future. Baseball's labor situation has never been easy, but this time will be even more complicated.
"There's a lot that we'll need to work out," Clark told The New York Times in November.
Dan Halem, the MLB deputy commissioner who will play a huge role in the CBA talks, acknowledged in The Times the complicated and unprecedented nature of the situation.
"There's a lot of contingencies that we're going to have to plan for because there's no one at the moment that knows what '21 is going to look like," Halem said.
• • •
When the NBA negotiated its most recent CBA with players in 2017, it included a "force majeure" clause that laid out a variety of options the league would have at its disposal if something made it "economically impractical for the NBA to perform its obligations under this Agreement." Included among the potential issues were wars, droughts, and earthquakes.
Oh, and epidemics.
The NBA and its players came up with a first-rate way to complete the '19-20 season — they did so in a Florida bubble — and there was no need to invoke the force majeure. Major League Baseball and its players have no such agreement in their current CBA, and thanks to the coronavirus pandemic, you can bet it will be in the next one. Figuring that out won't be easy, given the unprecedented nature of the conditions surrounding the 2020 season and the extreme difficulty of predicting what catastrophic events the future holds.
"In every NBA player contract, there is a clause outlining actions the commissioner can take in extreme circumstances," Dworkin says.
Once everybody figures out what's going to happen the next time we have a worldwide catastrophe, the two sides can start haggling about money. That's not going to be so easy because the vast majority of MLB teams have been trying to reduce their labor costs for years now. That's why the free agent market — beyond the contracts awarded to a select group of mega-stars — has been so frustrating for players and their agents lately. Sure, the big spenders want to reel in the top performers. That's why Bryce Harper, Manny Machado, Gerrit Cole, Zack Wheeler, and Anthony Rendon received such big contracts the past two offseasons. But teams weren't so willing to give big deals — particularly long-term contracts — to less coveted free agents.
The result is a top-heavy salary model that bestows significant riches upon a few and less lucrative, shorter deals on everyone else. In some ways, it makes perfect sense. Unlike other sports, which can promote their stars leading up to nearly every game, MLB does not have enough easily recognized standouts to do that. Many of them are pitchers who take the field only every fifth game. Second, the everyday talent on many teams isn't outstanding enough to make fans in other markets want to tune in. A CBA can't do anything about the quality of the game, and despite protests to the contrary by MLB apologists, the homer-strikeout model isn't producing compelling action. So, the union will want to get its veterans more money other ways, through earlier free agency, which leads to more accessible second and third free agent contracts, higher minimums for those who are less coveted roster additions, and fewer years of rookie minimum and arbitration years — when they're most underpaid.
"There's just a lot of unknowns," Clark says. "You anticipate there being an opportunity to work through them. Our players look forward to that conversation happening."
In July 2019, the MLBPA did something that led many to believe it was not going to be too keen on working with owners to find a quick, tidy labor solution. The union fired Rick Shapiro as its lead attorney, replacing him with Bruce Meyer, a confederate of Scott Boras and someone with no previous experience with baseball or its labor machinations. (More on him later.)
Shapiro had helped craft the 2012 and '16 labor agreements and was widely seen as someone who could get a deal done. A tough New Yorker, Shapiro was described by one player agent in The Athletic as "difficult" but had earned the respect of many throughout the sport during his 30 years of service, first working with individual players and since 2009 with the MLBPA. Shapiro got deals done, all right, but some criticized his willingness to acquiesce to the owners in return for harmony. The decision to elevate Meyer, who is linked closely to Boras — while Shapiro increasingly wasn't — can be seen as the forging of a new, hardline approach to the coming negotiations. Clark has talked tough in the run-up to the CBA's expiration, even before the pandemic hit. He lashed out at player agents who thought the firing of Shapiro was a bad move and a sign that the union leadership was in disarray.
"Any agent who believes that baseball players lack the resolve to fight for our rights, as we have always done, does not appreciate the history of this union and does not understand the players," Clark told The Athletic.
The Meyer hiring upset some, for a couple of reasons. First, he has no traditional baseball experience. Then again, when Marvin Miller took over as executive director in 1966, his previous role was with the United Steelworkers union, and his baseball experience came from rooting for the Brooklyn Dodgers. But more animus was generated from Meyer's ties to Boras, and the decision to elevate him to Shapiro's spot was seen as baseball's most powerful agent grabbing significant influence over the union.
Clark, of course, dismissed that as rubbish. He claimed to have good relationships with most — if not all — agents and was not interested in rumors that Boras was telling clients and others that he ran the union. The discord no doubt delighted owners, who hope to enter CBA negotiations against a foe that is in disarray. That way, they can continue what some consider a winning streak that has led to a model with more favorable cost controls and less room for uncertainty.
Those union sympathizers hoping for a return to the days of Miller's tenure and that of his successor, Don Fehr, are bound to be disappointed. Those two won resounding victories over a collection of owners who had little to no idea how to negotiate labor deals and who were operating from a disadvantage created by the draconian system that included the reserve clause, which tied players to teams forever, and a lack of arbitration and free agency options. By keeping the players rallied around the desire to improve a terrible lot, Miller and Fehr outflanked the owners on nearly every occasion. Those days are over. The owners are far more sophisticated in their business methods, and despite the complaints of fans and media members about the game's shift-driven, dinger-or-whiff lack of excitement, they are rolling in a giant pile of cash from TV contracts from national and regional outlets starved for summertime content.
In 2019, Forbes reported MLB's gross revenues at $10.7 billion, up from 2018's $10.3 billion total. It was the 17th consecutive season that saw a rise in proceeds. And there is more coming. In 2022, a six-year deal with FOX begins that brings $5.1 billion annually to the pot, a 40 percent rise from the current deal. In 2020, MLB inked a multi-billion-dollar deal with Turner, a jump of more than 50 percent. It's expected that ESPN will need to show a similar appetite for cash payments in order to stay in the game. If you think the owners want to share a large portion of those increases with the players, you probably think the sport will return to two-hour games soon. Not that the players won't fight for more of the cash. But they will be going up against a foe far more committed to fiscal law and order than its ancestors were.
So, what does this mean for the on-field product? In some ways, not much. Labor negotiations may dominate the headlines, but they don't impact pennant races. Fans will experience fatigue and some stress as they endure months of threats and drama surrounding negotiations, but on the field, the work stoppages people will care about will come between innings.
"There is no question we have to be aware of it," Kansas City vice president and AGM J.J. Picollo says. "It has to be on our minds, but it is out of our control. We are somewhat affected by it, but it's between the Players Association and MLB owners. We have awareness of it, but it's not a preoccupation."
Unless it becomes one.
— Written by Michael Bradley (@DailyHombre) for the Athlon Sports 2021 MLB Annual. At 224 pages, it's the largest on the newsstand and the most complete preview available today. Click here to get your copy.
(Rob Manfred photo by AP Photo/LM Otero)