Return-to-play plans in major sports leagues in the United States and beyond have taken shape in recent weeks. Top soccer leagues across the ocean are either playing or getting ready to play. The NBA, NHL, MLS and WNBA all seem headed for starts or re-starts later this summer, with any remaining details between ownership and players seemingly being akin to picking toppings on a pizza. We might not know exactly what the finished product will look like, but we’re pretty sure there is going to be a pizza.
Major League Baseball, then, is the outlier. The sides are so far apart on the financial details of a return-to-play plan that sometimes it seems like they’re arguing about two different things – like the players want pepperoni on the pizza and the owners want to know the price of gold.
If you’ve been watching all this unfold and you’re wondering why MLB is having such a hard time getting its act together while other sports seem to be figuring it out, here are some thoughts:
*The timing is awkward, at least financially: Compared to two other huge-money leagues that are attempting to resume play this summer – the NBA and NHL – MLB is in a tough spot. Both of those other leagues had played the vast majority of their regular seasons when play was halted March 11 in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.
The Wolves were through 64 of their 82 games, and the Wild had played 69 of 82, for example. They had already gathered in a lot of gameday revenue – tickets, concessions, etc. Plans for those leagues to resume play don’t include fans, but the revenue hit isn’t as great. NFL teams, by contrast, are three months away from playing games. By then, fans might be allowed into stadiums – at least in some markets, and at least at a limited capacity. And NFL teams generate more TV revenue than MLB teams.
MLB, on the other hand, would be preparing to come back without fans. Owners say they will lose $640,000 per game in that scenario.
*No sense of urgency: Because owners say they will lose so much money with every game played, their proposals for return-to-play scenarios have either involved players taking a bigger pay cut (which players don’t want) or getting full pro-rated salaries for a shorter season (again, players would be taking a pay cut but they would get paid for all the games played).
Players have countered with a proposal for a longer season, which the owners don’t want. Other leagues are eager to resume play as soon as possible so they don’t have to delay the 2020-21 season as much. Baseball, on the other hand, could find itself in a spot where owners are essentially running out the clock so the season HAS to be shorter and they lose less money. As long as games are being played in home stadiums of all the teams, the season has to end relatively early because of weather concerns.
*A history of mistrust between the sides: Given that losing money is inevitable and that owners and players generally should agree that some sort of season is better than nothing at all, you would think that finding some sort of common ground would be possible.
But here’s where possibly the biggest hurdle comes in: the owners and players have a long history of bumbling through hostile negotiations, and the rhetoric over the last month shows that hasn’t changed even in the midst of a sobering pandemic.
Players think owners are trying to squeeze them, and they don’t trust the amount of money owners say they are going to lose. Owners didn’t become rich by giving money away. If their argument is that everyone benefits when the game grows and everyone should share losses when money is tight, there is some logic to it (even if they have more money than the players).
Add it up, and here we are on June 9 – one day before the date ex-Twin Trevor Plouffe optimistically tweeted/reported that spring training part II would start – with no start date in sight and the gulf between ownership and players seemingly growing instead of shrinking every day.
Major League Soccer and the WNBA are in similar spots as MLB, but both seem geared to play truncated seasons.
While an argument can be made that calling off the season for health reasons and trying to come back full strength in 2021 is prudent, the optics of MLB arriving at that place via financial bickering instead of virus-related concerns would likely have an impact on popularity and revenue for years to come.
For that reason – and maybe that reason alone – it still seems quite possible that MLB will get its act together soon. But the longer we keep saying that, the less likely it actually is to happen.