Owners’ Ultimatum to Players: Negotiate New Pay Structure or Wait Until Fans Can Attend

Though owners have not formally presented the MLB Players Association with a proposal on the 50/50 revenue split that has been widely reported, they have apparently leveled an ultimatum. According to Jon Heyman, recent talks have included a hard-line choice between negotiating a pay structure other than prorated salaries or waiting to play until fans can attend games.

This is a pretty obvious flex by the owners, maybe even a full-on bluff, one meant to put the union on the defensive. The ball is in the players’ court, so to speak, but it’s the court of public opinion on which the owners are hosting the game. By remaining mum save for leaks of information like their health protocols and dire financial projections — both of which I’d wager were completely intentional — the owners have let it be known that the decision on whether to play in 2020 is up to the men in uniform.

And because it’s far easier for a group of 30 to present a unified front than it is a group of several hundred, the league typically has an easier job of getting people to carry its water. That is, as long as people aren’t looking past the surface when it comes to the numbers the league is presenting. Any projected losses for this season pale in comparison to what owners will lose if a labor impasse results in the forfeiture of a season that could have otherwise been played.

On the other hand, the owners have a bit of a point when it comes to maximizing their aggregate revenues, which are skewed heavily toward the postseason. While the nearly $790 million the league expected to rake in from playoff broadcast rights is nowhere near the tally from local and national rights across the entire regular season, it becomes a bigger piece of the pie the more that season is trimmed down. Factor in the addition of an extra round and the hunger for sports’ return and you can see how the playoff take could balloon further.

Therein lies another mark in the owners’ favor, which is that playoff shares granted to postseason participants are based on gate. Would no gate mean no shares? We can assume there would be an arrangement in place to amend that, but the owners may be perfectly happy to eliminate $2.36 billion in prorated salaries over 82 games in the meantime. At least until the snake on the end of the long tail of their actions comes back to bite them in the ass.

The players don’t want to accept what amounts to a de facto salary cap, nor do they trust the owners to be forthright about the actual revenue being generated. Were it a truly equal split, the players might actually come out ahead by going halfsies. But once all that money is laundered and pressed, there could be a few hundred million here or there that never makes it across the table. So will the owners bust open the books like it’s an episode of Bar Rescue? Doubt it.

I totally understand what the owners are doing here because it’s both completely transparent and extraordinarily simple. They’re putting the fans — whose game attendance reportedly accounts for 39% of MLB’s total revenue — in the middle of the negotiations and making it seem as though the players are the ones deciding whether or not those fans will get to watch them play, whether it’s in person or on television. Given how badly the players want to play and how difficult it may be to hold ranks as spring gives way to summer, I’m afraid the ploy is going to work.

The next 10 days or so are really going to be telling in that regard, since an agreement will probably have to be in place by the start of June in order to get spring training started back up by the June 10 date we’ve seen out there. If we flip the page on the calendar and we’re still discussing this matter as a hypothetical, well, you can officially worry about this impasse costing the season.

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