Posted by: Mike Cornelius | May 28, 2020

A Conflict About More Than Money

At last. After months of inactivity and weeks of often rancorous negotiations that seemed headed for failure, Thursday brought word that the parties had managed to bridge their differences and this summer will see games played after all, even though there will by necessity be no fans in the stands cheering their heroes on to victory. But the certain disappointment of that hard reality will surely be leavened by the joy of having play resume, and watching, even if only on TV, one’s favorite team chase a title.

After more than ten years of publication, has On Sports and Life garnered its first exclusive? From its lonely seat high in the upper deck of sports commentary, far removed from the inside information that those down in the box seats by the dugout are fed on a regular basis, how could this little blog break the story of the Great Game’s return? Of course, the answers to those questions are “no” and “it couldn’t.” For Thursday’s good news was not for diehard fans of American baseball, but rather for the equally passionate faithful of English Premier League soccer. The EPL, the most-watched sports league in the world, announced a mid-June return to action pending final approvals from British health authorities.

But that news came only after the Premier League’s season appeared almost certainly lost several times in recent weeks. Players publicly questioned the safety of playing a sport with unavoidable contact and close quarters with both teammates and opponents during a pandemic. Local authorities fretted about the possibility of fans defying lockdown orders and gathering in large numbers outside of stadiums during games. And owners of lower ranked teams rebelled against the deep-pocketed elite of English soccer. Franchises in the bottom tier of the EPL’s standings, facing the possibility of relegation to English soccer’s equivalent of the minors, repeatedly threatened to use the league’s voting rules that require a 70% majority to block any plan for a resumption of play.

Yet in the end, and with precious little time to spare, all parties chose to back away from the abyss into which they had been staring. So, in just less than three weeks, Aston Villa versus Sheffield United and Manchester City versus Arsenal will kick off the Premier League’s return, with a full slate of games beginning the following weekend.

The twists and turns from the EPL’s suspension of play on March 13 to its planned return 100 days later are not dissimilar to the ups and downs experienced by baseball fans in this country since Spring Training came to a halt one day earlier than English soccer. This week, those fans find themselves in much the same position that their cousins in Liverpool and London occupied as recently as ten days ago. In our case, the relevant parties are the thirty team owners, represented by MLB commissioner Rob Manfred’s office, and the players, spoken for by their union, the MLBPA. The two sides are locked in an increasingly bitter dispute over the terms for a season that if it is to happen, surely must start by shortly after Independence Day.

It is tempting to point to this week’s good news from the Premier League as a sign that while baseball may go right up to the brink of cancelling the entire season, ultimately reasonable people on both sides – and inflammatory rhetoric aside, such souls do exist in both camps – will forge an agreement that will result in the call of “play ball.” But then if important decisions traveled across the Atlantic so easily, we’d all be driving on the left. The English soccer league’s season nearly fell apart over certain financial concerns, and then was saved by a focus on other money matters. But despite the focus on player salaries, what sets the baseball negotiations apart from the EPL, as well as from the NBA and its decision to take a trip to Disney World, and the NHL and its plan for playoffs that lacks only the minor detail of a place to play the games, isn’t money. To the contrary, money is the one common thread weaving through the pandemic responses of all major sports leagues in every country. Rather the Great Game’s conflict between owners and players is all about a lack of trust.

Like virtually all U.S. sports franchises, the thirty major league clubs are privately held enterprises, free from public scrutiny or financial disclosure. What is known is that at its top level the Great Game has seen steady financial growth, thanks in fair measure to media contracts, and certainly despite the constant chorus from doomsayers forecasting baseball’s demise from slow play or too many home runs or the designated hitter rule or the prohibition against spitballs. The most recent estimate of franchise value placed every club except the Miami Marlins at $1 billion or more. That’s a guess of course, given the lack of public records, but the recent sale of the Kansas City Royals, not exactly a major market franchise, was for exactly that number.

Players have unquestionably benefited from the money pouring into the sport. But the huge, highly publicized contracts of superstars hide the far smaller dollars doled out to younger players still under team control. Then in recent years teams in virtual lockstep discovered the value of advanced metrics, and used that to reshape the free agent market, denying players the fruits of the contract system as it is currently structured. The level of enmity that engendered in players has been clear in scores of public statements and social media posts. Equally clear for more than a generation has been the implacable opposition of the Players Association to a salary cap. Yet the owners’ widely publicized initial financial proposal in the current negotiations was to tie player salaries for 2020 to team revenues – a salary cap. When that died a quick and deserved death, they instead made an offer that was a ham-handed effort to drive a wedge between the players based on their current salaries, though it appears to have had just the opposite effect.

Despite the understandable mistrust, surely there are both players and owners who understand the consequences of a lost season, and surely there are multiple paths to an agreement that will give fans a belated Opening Day, even if it is only on their flatscreens. But the simplest and most obvious way to both overcome suspicion and spur a deal would be for the owners to open their books. Let the players see the costs of running a big-league franchise, and the exact impact of lost ticket sales and concessions. If owners want players to partner with them in absorbing losses, then treat them as partners and give them the information to make an informed decision. The bet here is that such a move would very quickly lead to Spring Training 2.0, as it’s being called. But whatever the stakes of that wager, double or nothing says it will never happen.

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