As the weeks turn and we head towards another self-imposed deadline by the MLB to strike a deal prior to cancelling more of the MLB season, I think many are hopeful (at least some headlines are) that, in some sort of short term, the MLB lockout will end. It’s natural to feel this way, human beings for the most part are optimists. It’s easy to hope that the two sides will eventually feel the pressure to start the season, check their egos at the door, and slap the table on a common-sense deal that pays both sides and allows us to get back to our hot dogs, apple pie, Budweiser and Saturday matinees that we love as Americans. I think the more we read the tea leaves, however, the more we see that may be misguided. Based on how determined both sides appear to get what they want, this labor negotiation may have us headed towards a large portion of the season, or longer, without baseball being played.
By all accounts, both sides of this negotiation have seen this stalemate coming for the past couple years. The MLB owners admitted (according to media reports) that they are fully prepared to miss at least the first month of games. Assuming they aren’t showing all their cards, it probably means that they are fully prepared to miss significantly more of the season, possibly the entire season. From a business perspective, that’s certainly understandable. The owners would have been smart enough to insulate themselves, to some extent, from a protracted labor battle completely crippling their businesses and killing their negotiating power. Licensing deals, gambling promotions, restaurant investments: all of these would have likely been structured to provide some soft padding in the even the players decided to hold out for a larger portion of the pie.
Further, I think part of the reason we haven’t seen the owners move substantially off their current negotiating positions, despite public pressure, is that they don’t feel they have to. The MLB owners surely know by now that they have been vilified by the national media for their reluctance to negotiate. But the dirty little secret here may be that they don’t really have to care. They know that the second they strike a deal, fans will begrudgingly return, sportsbooks will line up at their doors for partnership deals, and TV broadcast rights will continue to exponentially grow. So, while most of the public believes that they are under extreme pressure to play baseball, I don’t think they actually feel that. This may be partially because they pay Rob Manfred to be their meat shield and field the tough questions they don’t want to answer, but it’s also part of the reason that we have gotten to this point. There’s at least a significant portion of the ownership that does not have the romantic attachment to the sport that fans do. They see dollars and cents, and they are determined to squeeze every last cent out of the players in this negotiation.
Simultaneously, I think the players are more determined, united, and prepared than ever before to turn this into a protracted legal battle. I think that the overwhelming public support for their positions will embolden them to continue the fight to get what they want, even if it takes most of the season, or beyond, to do it. Rob Dibble indicated, and based on the solidarity of the players I would say his instincts are accurate (along with the fact that they have the excess funds to pay for stadium workers’ salaries), that the MLBPA has a sizeable amount of money prepared to float the salaries of the less financially secure members for an extended period of time. They know the owners have carefully crafted their businesses to shield a significant portion of the revenue generated by their play from ever being part of these negotiations, and are determined to change the slice of the pie they receive and the way that teams operate with regards to competitiveness. I think for the players, however, the rift with the owners cuts a little deeper to them as people, as Rob Dibble articulated. Players want to be viewed as partners in this business, being that they are the product, not just the people that make the product. I personally don’t believe that the owners will ever accept that, and that mistrust is the real issue at the heart of this negotiation, beyond all the dollars and cents. That’s not exactly revolutionary to say, as it’s the case with every sports labor negotiation, but here it seems that divide is as great as it’s ever been. Unfortunately, I think that will ultimately make each side more determined to get what they want, and that will drag this battle out well beyond the dog days of summer when we should be lining up who’s contending for a World Series title.
Michael DiLiello is an Army Officer transitioning to the Sports Law field and will enroll as a 1L in the Fall of 2022. His opinions are purely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the United States Army, the Department of Defense, or any other external agency.
Image via The New York Times