Major League Baseball’s Dilemma: Return To Play Or Point Of No Return

On March 10th, the NBA and NHL were entering the home stretch of their respective regular seasons, as teams jockeyed for playoff positioning and qualifying. Major League Baseball teams were in the middle of their Cactus and Grapefruit league Spring Training schedules, with the earliest opening day in league history set to take place later that month on March 26th.

On the morning of March 11th, Rudy Gobert of the Utah Jazz was the first North American pro athlete to test positive for Covid-19. Later that day, the NBA suspended their season indefinitely for health and safety reasons. The NHL and MLB followed suit the next day, announcing the suspensions of their seasons on March 12th. As the calendar advances to early June, all three leagues have remained sidelined.

Return or No Return: Major League Baseball’s Dilemma

But sidelined has not necessarily meant seasons have been canceled. “Return-to-play” has been the phrase of choice by sports leagues as they each work with their players to negotiate the terms, guidelines, protocol, and logistics for the resumption of their respective seasons.

On May 26th, the NHL became the first of the three leagues to formally announce their return to play plan, ending the regular season but expanding the playoff pool to 24 teams. The NHL will ultimately choose two hub cities that will host each conference’s playoff rounds. The NHL tentative return date is late July.

On Thursday, the NBA announced a different approach for their return to play, eliminating the bottom eight teams from resuming play, while instituting an eight-game seeding schedule to determine the final makeup of the league’s traditional 16-team playoff format. The NBA is looking to finalize an agreement with The Walt Disney Company to utilize Walt Disney World Resort near Orlando as their operating base. The NBA is hoping to restart on July 31st.

And then there’s Major League Baseball.

Will Baseball Return, Or Take Their Ball and Go Home?

MLB owners and the Major League Baseball Players Association (MLBPA) have figuratively dropped the ball as they attempt to put together their own return to play plan. The league and the players are nowhere close to an agreement on the specifics for a return, and, as is usually the case with baseball, money is at the forefront of the negotiation hurdles. A tradition like no other, indeed.

MLB had been floating several unofficial return-to-play scenarios throughout the pandemic shutdown to any baseball scribe that would listen, in the hopes certain writers would take them and run with it. This served a dual-purpose for the league. First, it kept baseball in the sports news cycle by having writers post and Tweet various theoretical proposals, allowing the sport to carry the day so to speak from a fan interest standpoint. During a pandemic shutdown, there was not much competition for sports media exposure that the league had to worry about.

The second reason for the leaked concept proposals was to serve as a sort of a trial balloon to gauge player feedback and response. In the age of social media, when a writer puts something out there that has implications to players, you can be sure that those associated with the game will respond.

The first official proposal by the owners to the players union did not take place until May 12th. At a high level, the proposal called for an 82-game regular-season schedule starting the first week of July, with teams playing only their division counterparts in both leagues, as a measure to mitigate COVID-19 related health concerns over prolonged travel.

Additionally, the proposal also called for expanding the playoffs from 10 to 14 teams in total, as well as implement a “universal” designated hitter in both leagues. And while the proposal provided comprehensive details regarding protocols for protecting players, team, and stadium personnel from COVID-19 infection and transmission, the financial component was not included in the initial presentation of the MBL proposal. But rumors of a significantly reduced compensation structure were already swirling, and that immediately became a sticking point for the players and the union.

Baseball’s Return To Play Battle – How Did We Get Here?

Back on March 27th, the owners and players agreed to an initial framework that, among other things, guaranteed the players a pro-rated payout of their full 2020 salaries based on the number of regular-season games played. For example, if the league wound up playing half of the normal 162-game regular season, the players would receive a 50% payout of their full 2020 salary. There was also a 50-50 post-season revenue sharing feature included in the original framework. At the time that seemed significant, as baseball has never had a revenue-sharing plan between owners and players, like the NFL, NHL, and NBA all have, in varying formats.

The owners are contending that at the time the initial agreement was reached, there was not enough information available about the rate of expansion of COVID-19 infections, and the subsequent safety measurements and guidelines that were implemented by Federal and State governmental agencies to combat the spread. Key among those measurements were restrictions placed on mass gatherings of 50 or more people at events, including sporting events. That restriction prevented the possibility of fans being able to attend baseball games for the foreseeable future, thus eliminating revenue streams for the teams from gate receipts, parking, concessions, and merchandise sales.

The owners have been referencing an “economic feasibility” clause in the March agreement that, per MLB, was intended to re-open the financial arrangement previously agreed to by players and owners for 2020 return to play if fans were not allowed to attend games. As one might imagine, the players, the union, and their lawyers have a different interpretation of that language, and so far have not been willing to budge off the pro-ration provision of the initial agreement.

When the owners finally presented their amended compensation plan on May 26th, the union and players roundly rejected the proposal publicly. The plan called for a sliding scale of reductions based on player salary, with higher-salaried stars having to bear the brunt of the salary reductions versus players making the league minimum or in-between. Overall player compensation would have been reduced from $4 billion to $1.2 billion.

The players countered with their own proposal on May 31st. In it, they re-affirmed their position on maintaining the original pro-ration formula. They also proposed an increased 114-game schedule. This would have meant the players achieve a 70% pro-ration of their 2020 salaries or $2.8 billion of the initial $4 billion player pool. MLB has since rejected that proposal, and, although not formally providing a counter-offer, it is rumored that the league is discussing implementing a 48-50 game schedule without fans.

Return To Play Or Risk Permanently Harming The Game

Given the state of a national economy ravaged by COVID-19, with millions of Americans losing their jobs, the optics of Major League Baseball owners and players fighting over billions of dollars look bad. The initial optimism that the “boys of summer” would take center-stage and be the first major North American professional sports league to return to action in early July has quickly waned and has left fans wondering if there will be a season at all.

 

If that were to happen, it would be more than bad optics at play for the game. Baseball entered 2020 having already endured a rough off-season, in which two of the league’s premier teams, the Houston Astros and the Boston Red Sox, were implicated in sign-stealing scandals. Both fans and players alike were angry at how blatant the level of cheating was at its peak. And both were equally frustrated that Astros and Red Sox players were given immunity from punishment, in effect, for their cooperation during the separate investigations.

If baseball were to compound things by not being able to reach an agreement between the league and its players for a return to play for 2020, and have to cancel the entire season, this could have a lasting, negative impact on the growth of the game.

Baseball Needs To Find Its Next Generation Of Fans

Baseball has made it clear it wants to capture the interest of the younger generation to help expand their market share and ensure a replacement demographic for baby boomers is in place to carry the sport moving forward. To that end, MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred has been working almost maniacally to find creative ways to speed up the game through pace-of-play initiatives. Reducing the average length of games to zero through the cancellation of the season was probably not what he was intending. You cannot capture the imagination of the younger generation by giving them a bag of air.

Assuming the league could resume from a health and safety standpoint – and that’s a big if – the owners and players are blowing a tremendous opportunity to capture the interest of both hard-core and casual sports fans alike who are starving for live sports. How perfect would it be for baseball to return to play Fourth of July weekend? A nation reeling from the impact of COVID-19, and now boiling over with the uprising and protests regarding the murder of George Floyd, racism, and police brutality might welcome a three-hour distraction in their lives.

Sadly, it does not look like a resolution to the negotiations is anywhere in sight. The rhetoric between the owners and players is as off-putting as it has ever been. The mighty dollar is once again the anchor that weighs down and submerges both sides.

In the short-term, baseball is facing an 18-month hiatus between seasons if the 2020 season gets scrubbed. If that were not depressing enough, consider that the current labor agreement expires in December 2021. That opens up possible scenarios of a lockout by the owners, or a strike by the players if the current discord between the two sides cannot get resolved by next year.

There is so much at stake for both sides. Unfortunately, they both seem content to stand their ground, ultimately taking themselves and the game of baseball with them off the cliff and out of sight, out of mind.

But do not worry, the boys of summer will hopefully be returning this year, to a sheet of ice or a hardwood court near you.