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Eric Fisher | Labor angst to restart 2020 season leaves MLB at crossroads

SportBusiness' US Editor looks at the return of baseball and its labor negotiation process in the midst of a public health crisis.

Eric Fisher

Within hours of Major League Baseball and the MLB Players Association finalizing plans to restart the 2020 season, the online baseball community was abuzz with player and team projections of all types.

What are each club’s estimated win totals during the forthcoming 60-game regular season? What are the gambling odds for each team to win the World Series? What might the opening week pitching matchups look like? Could the abbreviated season allow a hitter to finish with the league’s first .400 batting average in nearly 80 years?

But these questions quickly forget the deeply bruising labor negotiation process that led to the league’s implementation of the season restart, an episode that notably failed to produce a negotiated agreement for numerous components of the resumption of play.

Instead, league commissioner Rob Manfred, a self-described “deal guy”, was forced to use his unilateral powers for mandating the regular season’s length, and the labor saga further exposed an already fractured relationship between the league and union heading into next year’s scheduled round of collective bargaining negotiations.

Just as the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic is accelerating other broad, long-emerging sports industry trends in areas such as gambling and ticketing, the public health crisis has also brought forward deep divisions between the camps that threaten MLB’s status as a major US team sport.

Long before the virus took hold around the world, there was trouble brewing in baseball labor circles. Already, players and union had plenty of misgivings on numerous structural issues, including allegations of service time manipulation for some young players and rising concerns of how recent free agent markets were operating.

The past three months kicked those existing tensions into overdrive. There was an initial agreement struck in March that allegedly laid out provisions for how to restart play and pay players amid the pandemic. But the two sides could not even agree on what that initial document included or fully contemplated.

That soon manifested in multiple ownership proposals calling for a reduction upon prorated player salaries for 2020, something the union refused at every step.

By the end of the ugly saga, the words “bad faith” were shot across the bow in each direction, and it is expected there will be at least one, and perhaps several formal labor grievances coming out of this. Every other major US sports league was able to manage the complexities of Covid-19 and develop a restart plan without similar labor acrimony.

The ongoing situation is the last thing the sport currently needs, particularly as MLB is grappling with attendance declines in six of the last seven seasons, will be allowed limited fans at best in 2020, carries an image of its pace of play being overly slow, and is facing massive revenue losses this year it has already lost more games to the pandemic than any other US sports property.

Add in more negative energy stemming from cheating scandals involving two teams, and deep amounts of financial stress and negotiating angst within Minor League Baseball, MLB finds itself at a crossroads like none other in its more than 150-year history.

The last time baseball found itself in a similarly all-consuming crisis was 1995, when average attendance plummeted by a fifth due to another labor crisis that led to the cancellation of the prior year’s World Series. Fan outrage with the game was palpable and troubling economic divides within the sport were beginning to take hold.

It would ultimately take the better part of a decade for baseball to find its fiscal footing again, a process greatly aided by several major historical and industry milestones during that period, including Cal Ripken Jr.’s consecutive games played streak, the New York Yankees’ dynasty, another wave of league expansion, the advent of comprehensive revenue sharing among teams, the formation of MLB Advanced Media, and a run of new stadium development, not to mention historic home run chases (albeit ones ultimately sullied by steroid revelations).

What circumstances and events will help the sport regain momentum this time? There is plenty of historic-level talent currently playing. But amid the depths of baseball’s issues now and the darkening labor clouds, there are no apparent magic bullets.

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