The first round was unscheduled, and to call it a fight would at this point be off the mark.
The matchup is the same, however, and it’s one that never does Major League Baseball and its players any favors with the public.
Millionaires vs. Billionaires.
As the 2020 baseball calendar slips further into jeopardy while the novel coronavirus continues its spread across the country, MLB and MLB Players’ Association officials are engaging, exchanging ideas and proposals and hoping to hammer out something resembling an agreement regarding contingencies for a significantly shortened or altogether canceled season.
MLB and the union had several industrious discussions over the weekend and once again exchanged proposals, according to a person with direct knowledge of the negotiations. The person spoke to USA TODAY Sports on the condition of anonymity due to the sensitive nature of the talks.
Next year, those groups will aim to hammer out a Collective Bargaining Agreement before the current CBA expires in December 2021. That was expected to be the battle royale, with players seeking significant changes to how and when they are compensated and granted free agent rights.
As for this?
It is a nettlesome and virtually unprecedented taffy pull, featuring so many of the same issues that mark every CBA negotiation – compensation, service time issues, player welfare – yet set against a grim backdrop.
MLB and the MLBPA have in the past 15 years managed to enact significant changes in the midterm portion of CBAs – be it changes to the Joint Drug Agreement, a new domestic-violence policy or issues within the white lines.
This is a different animal altogether – COVID-19 has presented sports leagues with a moving target and a possible need to dig into legal boilerplate that often collects dust within the CBA.
The sports-watching public never wants to see this sausage get made, even in the best of times. And certainly not as hundreds of thousands are infected, quarantined or succumb altogether from a global pandemic.
Yet even if the games don’t go on, the industry does and right now, that industry produces nearly $11 billion of revenue per year. That number wouldn’t be reduced to zero in a calendar year with no real baseball, but it might as well be.
For all of baseball’s advanced metrics and modern lexicon, 2020 may well be defined by a centuries-old French phrase: Force majeure.
That’s the concept boiled into any number of contracts, be it MLB’s standard player agreement, or the billion-dollar agreements between leagues and teams and the TV networks that are the true drivers of the sports industry’s economic engine.
Commonly known as the “act of God” clause, it could, in the big picture, keep the ESPNs and Turners from going belly up on billion-dollar commitments that suddenly won’t have any accompanying inventory.
It all flows downhill, of course, and eventually lands at the feet of the players.
And baseball finds itself in perhaps the tightest spot of any of the four major sports leagues.
The NBA and NHL managed to contest nearly 80% of their regular seasons. Certainly, if the playoffs are shortened or canceled altogether, that will be a significant revenue hit. But the players, by and large, got paid.
The NFL has a small luxury of time – while we are still weeks away from any sense of stability in terms of confidently relaxing social distancing and returning to normal life amid COVID-19, players aren’t due the first of 17 game checks for another 24 weeks.
Baseball? The year’s first pay period begins on Thursday – what was once Opening Day.
So, now what?
Well, optimism remains that a deal will be struck, according to people with knowledge of discussions. President Donald Trump’s March 13 declaration of a national emergency gives MLB the right to invoke Paragraph 11 of the uniform player contract, which essentially suspends player contracts during such an emergency.
But such a move would not necessarily signal the end of negotiations, with both sides making complex and compelling cases.
For owners, it is that potential multi-billion dollar loss of industry revenues. Even if you’re sitting on more than a billion dollars of franchise equity – lest we forget, even the Kansas City Royals sold for more than $1 billion – that’s still a pinch.
The players, meanwhile, live in a far more finite world. Their windows to earn a living are narrow, particularly in an era when teams devalue experience in the service of “efficiency.” It’s hard to stomach losing either or both a year of salary – at an average of more than $4 million per year – or a year of service time when getting to the golden goose of free agency is already a seven-year mountain to scale.
It is clear both parties have a ton at stake, and in that lies the greatest hope for fans wanting to see any baseball in 2020. Both sides remain determined to play a season, any season, even if it may look more truncated and exotic than anything the game has known.
That’s an easy sentiment for management and labor to agree upon. The rest is a whole lot trickier.
And then, in a year, they’ll get to do it all over again.