May 20: The league is aiming to formally present the union with an economic plan by this Friday, USA Today’s Bob Nightengale reports.
May 19: As Major League Baseball and the MLB Players Association continue their standoff over player compensation in a shortened 2020 season without fans in attendance, it seems neither side is prepared to budge. MLB Network’s Jon Heyman tweets that some with the league believe they “have it cold in emails” from late March that the previously agreed-upon prorated salary arrangement was contingent on fans being in attendance. The MLBPA, of course, has contested that the standing agreement sufficiently addresses that scenario (i.e. that the players are entitled to prorated salaries even in a spectator-free setting).
Joel Sherman of the New York Post has obtained the email in question, which was sent from MLB senior vice president of labor relations/deputy general counsel Patrick Houlihan to deputy commissioner Dan Halem. Within the email, Houlihan details a conversation he had with MLBPA deputy general counsel Matt Nussbaum on the morning of March 26:
Matt asked what ‘economic feasibility’ meant in Section I. I told him it meant that we would only consider playing in neutral sites or without fans if it worked for us economically. I reminded him of [commissioner Rob Manfred]’s comments at the outset that playing in empty stadiums did not work for us economically. But I said, for example, that we might be willing to have a conversation about playing some limited number of games in empty stadiums if players agreed to reduce their daily salaries for those games, and if it was part of a larger plan that made economic sense. Matt confirmed that that is what he thought we meant, but appreciated the confirmation.
Of course, it can’t be gleaned from that email just how clearly and accurately the league’s stance was laid out by Houlihan, nor is there any direct quote or confirmation of that understanding from an MLBPA official. We also don’t know whether any additional discussions or negotiations surrounding the issue took place between that conversation and the actual ratification of the agreement. While this email certainly indicates that the two sides discussed the matter, its status as a true “smoking gun” is up for interpretation.
The league will surely seek to use this as ammunition to argue that the MLBPA represented a belief that spectator-less games would need to be accounted for in a separate negotiation. The MLBPA took a similar approach recently when agent Scott Boras ardently stated that ownership “represented during that negotiation that they could operate without fans in the ballpark,” ultimately declaring that there will be no renegotiation of the standing agreement.
Late last week, commissioner Manfred suggested that owners were facing a collective loss of as much as four billion dollars — a grim portrayal which the league argues as the driving factor in its reported proposal for a revenue-sharing plan with the players. However, Travis Sawchik of FiveThirtyEight reports that the players are of the belief that, based on what ownership has presented, they’d benefit from a season of prorated player pay much more than by simply canceling the season (Twitter thread). The league’s revenue projections, for instance, did not account for the expanded playoff format that has been suggested but not yet formally proposed, according to Sawchik. If that’s the case, the players likely feel they still have leverage.
To that end, MLBPA senior director of collective bargaining Bruce Meyer tells Sherman: “the contract itself is very clear that in the event of a partial season players will get paid pro rata salary — whether with fans or without.”
That much seems debatable based on the portions of the agreement that have been made public, but the MLBPA nonetheless appears set to stand firm on that assertion. Meyer also confirms multiple reports that the league has yet to formally propose a salary scale (presumably due to the union’s refusal to even consider the 50-50 revenue share that was reported last week).
“Rather than actually negotiating over these issues the league is focusing on leaking self-serving internal memos to the media,” Meyer tells Sherman. He goes on to add that the league has yet to provide the Players Association with any documentation to support that their revenue losses would actually align with the extent of their claims.
It’s frankly baffling that things have reached this point. The two sides swiftly worked out an agreement not two weeks after the league was shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but the document produced by those negotiations inexplicably failed to address this very scenario in a decisive manner that left no room for other interpretation. The implementation of a prorated pay scale in a shortened season seemed straightforward, but a later clause stating that the two sides will “discuss in good faith the economic feasibility of playing games in the absence of spectators” has proven nebulous enough to bring about the current stalemate.
The optics of a billionaires-versus-millionaires standoff is always cringe-worthy but is particularly egregious at a time when so much of the country has been laid off or furloughed. As both sides squabble over enormous sums of money, many in the general public look on with frustration and resentment.
It’s understandable that the players feel they’ve already made concessions and have now had the aforementioned “good faith” violated by the league’s call for additional cuts, but it’s also confounding that first iteration of their agreement left the door open for this publicly unfolding drama. It’s not as though playing games without fans in attendance was a radical concept at the time of the agreement; it had been a heavily speculated-upon possibility. The fact that it wasn’t expressly accounted for is a staggering omission.
If both sides are indeed drawing a hard line and are entirely averse to renegotiated terms, it stands to reason that the eventual outcome could be litigation. At that point, an arbitrator would need to consider the language within the original agreement and the alleged representations made by the league, weighing those against the purported email proof and any other evidence ownership wished to present.