As professional baseball, basketball and football inch toward some semblance of competition in 2020, their respective labor relations and COVID 19 responses could hardly be more disparate. And in the case of baseball, could hardly be more disappointing.
Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred’s 180-degree flip on the likelihood of a 2020 season—going from 100% certain of a 2020 season to not at all confident of one, a flop he made within a five-day period—represents a complete failure in leadership.
Contrasting Manfred’s performance with those of his peers, the NFL’s Roger Goodell and NBA’s Adam Silver, is a stark illustration of how fast the public perception of sports leaders can change.
Goodell’s recent acknowledgment of his and the NFL’s mishandling of players’ on-field social justice protests have received generally positive, if not effusive, responses from players and their union. Until then Goodell was generally being panned as a puppet for greedy, insensitive owners. At the same time, Silver has presided over a league that’s shown strong support for players’ views on social justice, Black Lives Matter, and its plan to resume action during the pandemic. The league is moving cautiously toward playoffs.
As for baseball and Manfred, it’s entirely different. They haven’t even begun to discuss or negotiate the significant changes necessitated by the pandemic. No, at a time when more than 30 million Americans are out of work, we’ve been given a near-daily catfight between billionaires and millionaires over how to divide more than $10 billion in annual Major League Baseball revenue.
Manfred is not solely to blame. A handful of players have been remarkably tone-deaf, none more than Tampa Bay’s Blake Snell, the 2018 American League Cy Young Award winner. “I’m not playing unless you get mine, OK?” Snell reportedly said on his social media channel. “Y’all gotta understand, man, for me to go—for me to take a pay cut is not happening, because the risk is through the roof.”
Depending on the myriad unresolved issues, the health risk to players may very well be through the roof. But come on Blake! Show at least a shred of awareness of other people’s plight. A handful of other players supported Snell, notably Philadelphia’s Bryce Harper, who a year ago signed a 13-year, $330 million contract. Snell’s deal isn’t bad either: five years, $50 million.
But Snell and Harber are paid far more than most players. The median MLB salary last year was around $1.4 million, meaning half the players made more than that and half made less. The minimum 2019 salary was $558,000. So no player on a major league contract last year is starving. But MLB owners are in an entirely different socio-economic universe. No team in MLB is worth less than $1 billion. The owners are no longer sportsmen deriving their sole income, or even a significant portion of it, from the operation of their ball clubs. They’re tech guys, capitol managers, corporate titans, etc.
That has to contribute to their silence during Manfred’s fumbling. If owners really felt connected to the game and committed to its fans and history, they wouldn’t allow this. With the number of sensational young stars on today’s rosters, just now beginning to establish themselves in the minds of fans, there’s simply no way owners would tolerate this if they cared.
To say nothing of the transcendent Mike Trout, now entering the prime years of a career already compared favorably to the greatest players of all time. What about the fans? Ticket prices are out of reach for many. $15 beers are common.
Spring Training has become a depersonalized, fenced-off picture of corporate branding. And who remembers getting to a game early to watch outfielders show-off their arms, and middle infielders perform ballet around second? It’s been a long time.
The details of the negotiations are too dreary to digest in full. The short version: owners offered players a pro-rated version of their salary, based on the number of games eventually paid. Players agreed. Then the owners said, “Oh yeah, it’ll be less than that if we don’t have fans.” Players said, loud and clear, “No it won’t.” Do owners have a point? Sure they do. Live attendance, souvenirs, and concessions can comprise about 40 percent of some teams’ revenues, according to owners. Without that money some clubs would be in trouble, they say. All the more reason to address fanless games before agreeing to pro-rated salaries!
It should also be noted that the players union, the strongest in all of pro sports, has never believed what owners say about their finances. Players have demanded owners open their books for decades, and for decades the owners have refused. So here we are: dark ballparks, antagonistic lawyers filling sports pages, and billionaire owners claiming they can’t afford what they agreed to. All the while, phenomenal young players like Juan Soto, Fernando Tatis Jr., Cody Bellinger and Yoan Moncada sit idle.
Players say they’re done negotiating. “Tell us when and where.” And Manfred, the owners’ employee, the one guy with the power to do just that, is not up to the task.