MLB, MLBPA need to use imagination to overcome financial hurdles

Rob-Manfred-MLB

MLB commissioner Rob Manfred speaks to the media. (LM Otero/AP)

So it turns out a lot of us had a lot of this all wrong. That the notion it would be far more difficult to resume a season interrupted by a pandemic than start a season delayed by a pandemic was so offbase.

Now that the Major League Baseball Players Association and owners have formally exchanged their visions for the medical protocols surrounding the 2020 season and found them to have a fair amount of common ground, the issue turns this week to the financial protocols and, well, that sound you’ll hear in the next couple of days is the rubber hitting the road. Not surprisingly, management’s 50-50 revenue sharing non-proposal was DOA the second it was leaked — just by running out the words ‘revenue-sharing’ made me think this was less a serious thought than it was simply staking out a position so toxic to the MLBPA that anything else would seem soft — and it never reached the proposal stage.

What’s left? If owners don’t open their financial books more than they have at any other time… nothing. Then we wait for one side to cave in as the month of May disappears. Good times, for sure!

The good news is that the past week has seen more measured voices emerge from the ranks of the players. The better news is that very little shots were fired across any bows. There have been some public relations hits post-Blake Snell — Noah Syndergaard is being sued by his Manhattan landlord for $250,000 due to an alleged failure to make lease and commission payments, and the Oakland A’s failed to make a $1.2 million annual rental payment due on May 1, citing a lack of revenue. Legally, the A’s have apparently a full right to exercise the clause in their rental agreement. Since no games have been played and the A’s don’t make money anyhow and the place is a freaking cesspool to begin with — and since the Governor of California was just two weeks ago saying there wouldn’t even be sports behind closed doors in his state any time soon — there is some tiny patch of moral ground to be occupied by the team. But since owner John Fisher’s net worth is somewhere north of $2 billion (U.S.) … eh, not so sure that patch isn’t just a blade of grass.

Lead Off with Ziggy and Scotty Mac
Some movement with MLB-MLBPA negotiations?
May 25 2020

This never was about negotiating a new collective bargaining agreement. That can wait for a year. This was about finding a way to make something work and here’s the rub: the timing has been atrocious because unlike the NBA and NHL, Major League players haven’t banked the majority of their pay. Players don’t get paid for spring training and they have been receiving money for April and May as part of a $170-million payout negotiated at the beginning of the shutdown, when the players agreed to accept pro-rated pay. Owners say that agreement was based on the expectation fans would return at some point. The players disagree.

Thing is, unlike NHL and NBA teams, Major League clubs have yet to pocket any concession or parking revenue because there haven’t been any home games. There may not be any of that revenue this year if games are played behind closed doors and next year’s revenue stream will also be affected if season ticket holders roll their 2020 money over until 2021. The Associated Press reports that based on expected losses, players would end up getting just less than 90 per-cent of revenue generated in an 81-game season played behind closed doors under the current pro-rated agreement. The players’ response? We don’t get more than you agreed to pay us when revenues are higher than expected so why should we take less when they’re lower?

Squaring this circle is going to require some imagination — most likely a hybrid of deferred contract money and promises based on the only source of guaranteed revenue: TV money. Adding more playoff games might help bolster the TV revenue — but keep in mind that players don’t receive salaries during the post-season, either. Rather, they get playoff shares.

I’m optimistic this gets done because there is precedent here: the MLBPA and owners opened an existing CBA to phase in drug-testing when faced with the threat of Congressional oversight and public dissatisfaction. Plus there always comes a time when ownership realizes it’s a fine line between positioning yourself for a labour kill-shot and doing irreversible damage to the most important part of your product: the players. We aren’t there yet but we will be. Soon.

QUIBBLES AND BITS

• Federal, state and local governments in the U.S. have wiped out hurdles to a fast return. California Gov. Gavin Newsom and New York counterpart Andrew Cuomo are fairly lobbying their state’s pro teams to at least return home for practice and just this weekend the U.S. government removed restrictions on professional athletes entering to the country. Keep in mind that a week ago baseball commissioner Rob Manfred raised some eyebrows on CNN when he suggested baseballs quarantine regimen would be seven days, which means he’s either making federal health policy or he has access to the highest level of decision-making.

• My Writers Bloc colleague Stephen Brunt wonders if NHL players’ experience with escrow makes them more sensitive to league revenue issues than other athletes. I bet he’s right.

• Chipper Jones added his voice to the growing list of former players calling out current Major Leaguers for a perceived reluctance to return to play but the voice that really has to hurt is that of Mark Teixeira, a responsible union member when he played who was one of the player representatives whose signature was on the 2007 collective bargaining agreement.

• Edmonton’s Alphonso Davies is one of the breakout stars of world soccer but he’ll face his biggest test Tuesday when his Bayern Munich looks to all but salt away the Bundesliga title against second-place Borussia Dortmund in Der Klassiker, one of the signature matchups on not just the German but the international soccer calendar.

Davies — at 19 already tabbed the best player in the CONCACAF region by Fox commentators Alexei Lalas and Taylor Twellman — will be matched up against Jadon Sancho. Sancho was expected to be one of the most sought-after players this summer and although he is nursing an injury, he and Achraf Hakimi have the pace and incisiveness to create an issue for Davies.

The Bundesliga’s return has been a critical success but a Bayern win moves them seven points ahead and could make for some meaningless fixtures in front of empty stands. The call here? A 2-2 draw.

THE ENDGAME

It is the most under-reported and under-discussed sports story of the pandemic, yet one that hits home for everybody: what will the state of youth sports — kid’s games — look like in the fall, let alone next month or the month after?

By this point, it’s pretty clear: summer has been cancelled for kids in a way we haven’t seen since the polio epidemics in the mid-1900s. I’m talking about summer camps, be they private or city run or as a means of funding university athletic programs — the ubiquitous INSERT YOUR SCHOOL’S NAME HERE athletic camp that has done so much good work in promoting wider public health while introducing the next generation of athletes to team and individual sports and skills. Is there a parent out there who doesn’t delight in rummaging through their teenagers clothes as they get ready to move on to university and finding, for example, that McMaster Sports Camp t-shirt? Nope.

Truth is, the thorny issue of kids sports embodies every parent’s concern about re-opening: it’s a combination of issues relating to schooling, crowds, exposure, exertion and long-term health. It’s difficult enough these days to let kids be kids in the neighbourhood park, let alone school or playing fields or arenas.

On Writers Bloc we had a sobering discussion with Scott Smith, Hockey Canada’s Chief Operating Officer, about issues surrounding plans for return to play and what could end up being a defining financial crisis for a sport that has already priced itself out of many parents’ price range. Never mind equipment and registration, there’s a whole eco-system out there funnelling away parents’ money on a year-round basis: summer skills schools, travel to tournaments (a financial mainstay for many minor hockey organizations), things of that nature. One needn’t think long and hard about what historic unemployment numbers will do to that eco-system.

Writers Bloc
Hockey Canada COO on challenges for returning to the ice
May 20 2020

So in addition to all the health and safety protocols that need to be overhauled in a post-pandemic world — protocols that could be in the hands of minor hockey organizations as early as next week — Smith said that Hockey Canada has worked on financial models for its member organizations and has come to the realization that many of the resources devoted to growing the game at the entry-level will need to be diverted to maintaining the level of participation that already exists.

Rest assured other sports will be dealing with similar issues, although perhaps on a scale that is not as grand. But credit Hockey Canada and Smith for providing some sweetness to the sour: Smith says that for a year at least the emphasis in minor hockey might need to be on skills development and what he called a “more local approach.” Sounds like a plan.

Jeff Blair hosts Writers Bloc with Stephen Brunt and Richard Deitsch from 2-5 p.m. ET on Sportsnet 590/The Fan. You can also hear the show live on the Sportsnet app, at Sprtsnt.ca/590listen or tell Google or Alexa to “play Sportsnet 590.” You can rate, review and subscribe to the podcast here.

Jeff and Dan Riccio also co-host a national soccer radio show — ‘A Kick In The Grass’ — heard Monday night on the Sportsnet Radio Network. A special extended version is available via podcast here.

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