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Owners approve their latest plan to exploit players

Why players are balking at MLB’s “revenue sharing proposal”

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MLBPA executive director Tony Clark answers questions about Astros sign stealing scandal
Executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association Tony Clark fields questions from reporters.
Photo by Alejandra Villa Loarca/Newsday via Getty Images

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┻┳| •.•) Is baseball back yet?

┳┻|⊂ノ

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The answer: no, but soon...maybe. Yesterday, MLB owners approved a plan to begin an 82-game season in early July. Even assuming the spread of COVID-19 slows to a point where social distancing restrictions are lifted nationwide–an anything but certain stipulation–other barriers would need to be overcome before play might resume. Chief among them is the fact that the aforementioned plan is likely to draw criticism from the MLB Players Association, which also needs to green light any proposal.

For starters, the league plan lacks key details regarding health and safety protocols. How will MLB procure adequate protective equipment and conduct COVID-19 testing? Given that teams would still be frequently traveling (the plan calls for games at home ballparks), what happens when a player, umpire, team employee, etc. inevitably tests positive? This FiveThirtyEight piece does an excellent job using Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert’s positive test to explain explain how even one COVID-19 case can bring an entire league to a halt. The response isn’t as simple as requiring that individual to self-isolate; their entire team and recent opponents would be forced to do the same.

The owners’ goal to start the season as quickly as possible is understandable: they want to salvage as much revenue as possible. The idea that baseball could finish 2020 in the red (after raking in over $10 billion last year) seemed impossible not too long ago, but here we are amidst a global pandemic. However, as (former VEB overlord) Craig Edwards noted at FanGraphs yesterday, even in the absence of gate receipts due to fan-less games, teams still have other sources of revenue such as TV deals to buoy themselves financially.

The point still stands: COVID-19 is going to cost owners a lot of money, especially compared to what they would have made in a typical year. Enter the latest player compensation proposal, one that MLBPA representatives already deem a “nonstarter”–and for good reason. The two parties originally agreed to a deal back in March that would prorate player salaries for the 2020 season. In other words, a half-length season would result in half the pay. But now, owners are asking players to take a sharper pay cut, pushing for a deal that would see teams share 48% of revenue with players. (It should be noted that what is or isn’t considered “revenue” to be distributed is unclear.)

As Cardinals reliever Andrew Miller, an MLBPA executive board member, stated in an interview with ESPN, “The way our sport works is we are not tied to revenue in any way. If the owners hit a home run and make more money, we don’t go back and ask for more on our end.” Miller hit the nail on the head. For years, player income has remained fixed according to agreed-upon contracts. Whether revenue rose 1% or 5%, a player on a $10 million contract would get paid $10 million. This has led to players increasingly receiving a smaller piece of the pie while owners, who have never split revenue with players during prosperous times, pocketed a greater proportion of the windfall.

The existing financial structure is designed to disproportionately benefit owners during the “good times.” Yet the moment MLB experiences its first “bad times” in a while, owners are suddenly insisting that players shoulder the burden.

This is a bad deal for the Players Association on face. It’s even worse when you consider that players aren’t just being asked to work for less than initially promised. They’re being asked to work for less than promised and risk exposing both themselves and their families to a potentially fatal virus. Quite frankly, the MLBPA would be doing a disservice to its members to accept the owners’ proposal in its current state.

I can already hear the sound of anti-MLBPA, pro-owner readers typing away in the comments. You know who you are. Even after I devoted a substantial portion of my article advocating for better minor league pay to discussing how it would benefit teams too, the same objections were made like with any other VEB post about workers’ rights.

I don’t want to listen to people who play baseball for a living complain about their job.

At the expense of coming off as hyperbolic, the demonization of “spoiled brat millionaire players” while holding a “can-do-no-wrong” attitude towards penny-pinching billionaire owners will forever make no sense to me. Of course the former want to get paid their fair share. The best case scenario for most players is that their primary source of income ends for good before they turn 40. All the while, a fluke play could derail their career at any moment, so apologies on their behalf if they want to cash in and attain financial security while they have the chance. And in the context of the COVID-19 crisis, they want to ensure a safe work environment like anybody else in their position would. Nobody is asking you to feel more sympathy for MLB players than people living in abject poverty. All I’m saying is to respect their desire to not get screwed over by a bad labor agreement.