MLB, Players Heading Toward Deal–Because They Must

"There will be a deal because the prospect of not getting a deal is unthinkable to both sides. It will happen because it has to happen.”
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Rob Manfred and Tony Clark walked to the edge of the cliff and decided the outcome of jumping was a rather injurious one. This is not a surprise. This is often the way labor negotiations work in baseball: threats, posturing and fighting a PR battle until a deadline is nigh. Like procrastinating middle schoolers facing a term paper assignment, they act rationally when they have to.

They don’t have a deal yet, but they have the framework of one. The union is studying the owners’ latest proposal and may well come back with a counter or tweak, but a return to play is now possible. The calendar finally forced both sides into a framework designed not to win but to settle.

With the regular season scheduled to end Sept. 27, time was running out. Figure an average of 6.2 games per week in a season. You need four weeks of prep time before Opening Day (one week of COVID testing and education; three weeks of training.) By the end of this week, that left an 11-week window for baseball: at most, 68 games.

I go back to the words I wrote a month ago from a long-time club executive who has been through many of the labor wars. When I asked him if he thought the two sides would reach an agreement–when things looked especially bleak–he responded, “Are you kidding? Of course. Of course they will. There will be a deal because the prospect of not getting a deal is unthinkable to both sides. It will happen because it has to happen.”

For all the hand-wringing and the nasty tweets, the possible outcome serves all sides well:

Tony Clark

Clark gets a needed big win after the 2016 CBA negotiations. He drew a line early that his players would take no pay cuts beyond 100% of their prorated salaries. He communicated it well to his players and they showed solidarity. He got it.

The Players

In addition to their full prorated pay, they get an expanded postseason. That’s why they play: for the chance to win a championship. Now more players will have that opportunity.

Rob Manfred, MLB Commissioner

Rob Manfred

Yes, he took the PR hit when he had to reverse course from his guarantee a season would be played. He had to do so because the union shut down talks and raised the specter of a billion-dollar grievance. But it also was Manfred, at the urging of a vast majority of his owners, who went back to Clark with another offer–this time face to face after all the electronic nonsense and incivility.

Manfred crossed the bridge he had to cross to get a deal: 100% prorated pay. But he extracted his own victory as well: control of the calendar. Players wanted more games that would push the World Series deep into November. Manfred heard from his public health advisors and TV partners that was a bad idea. The owners have $1 billion in TV money riding on the postseason being played to completion. They can feel better about those dollars now that Manfred won control of the calendar.

The Owners

They have a product to sell, not just now but when they start lining up sponsorship dollars for 2021. The price for baseball going dark for 17 months would have gone way beyond the cost of missing games this year. It would have had a compounding effect.

The expanded postseason is as much of a win for them (if not more so) as for the players. They had floated the idea to the players before the pandemic, but got nowhere. They thought it might have to wait until the next CBA. Now they get it immediately. It’s worth a minimum of $200 million per year for them, as live content continues to be the coin of the entertainment realm. No one has more of it than baseball. It’s especially valuable right now in the middle of a pandemic with movie and television shows unable to generate new content.

The 16-team postseason also paves the road toward expansion to 32 teams, which makes scheduling much easier and gives owners huge expansion fees to help recoup some of their economic losses.

The Fans

You get baseball. And you get baseball like you’ve never seen before. An 11-week season in which more than half the teams go to the postseason. It will be a wild, unpredictable scramble. The Rays, Reds and White Sox are as much of a threat to win the World Series as the Dodgers and Yankees.

The complaint that baseball has “too many games,” especially “meaningless” ones, has no place this year.

I don’t like the idea that this short season will become even more about pitching changes and bullpens, or that National League baseball–true baseball in which everyone has to play a position and bat–may be dead forever.

And the next-day discussions may be almost as important as the ones today, such as players becoming more cooperative when it comes to wearing microphones and other ways to help sell the game. I know this: you can’t bring games back with no crowds and trot out the same broadcast. This opportunity is a blank canvas for owners and players. The sport is now a studio sport, not an in-person sport. So you better treat it that way to maximize the viewing experience. Devise novel ways to present the game and the personalities of players to fans (i.e., drone cams, players mic’d, enhanced ambient game sound, new camera angles, no canned crowd noise).

The Field of Dreams Game between the Yankees and White Sox is still on the schedule (though no final decision has been made). It will be even better without fans there.

An ad hoc season is a great opportunity for baseball. The games will look different.

There will be more September games with playoff implications than ever before. Postseason baseball when studios are shuttered, especially leading up to a presidential election, should generate ad dollars and interest. It now looks like it is happening–because it had to happen.