As a wanna-be historian, I hesitate to ascribe inevitability to anything. That said, it is November 27th, and there is nary a whisper that a new collective bargaining agreement will be signed, sealed, and delivered in time to avert a lockout as of 11:59 pm on December 1st. The smart money is on a work stoppage, although Commissioner Rob Manfred has stated that ownership has yet to decide whether to lock the players out. It’s what could happen after the work stoppage is in place that is fraught with uncertainty.
Much of what follows in this piece could be for naught. It all depends on whether we think a lockout will reach resolution before Opening Day. If it does, excellent. We can all enjoy a free agent frenzy as teams frantically try to build rosters for the 162-game marathon. But if the lockout extends into the season… now we are talking about missed game checks.
There are lots of ways one could argue that the Major League Baseball Players’ Association is at a disadvantage against the owners when it comes to labor negotiations. For example, while it may be difficult to keep 30 owners on the same page and control the flow of information, that pales in comparison to forming consensus among and managing information throughout the approximately 1200 players who are on 40-man rosters.
Furthermore, ownership’s expertise is, well, business. Even Yankees fans are recently coming to realize that ownership is much more concerned with the bottom line than with winning at any and all costs. Meanwhile, the rank and file of the MLBPA are professional athletes. Though many may have keen minds for business, others may not. And while owners can maintain their control of clubs for decades, the average career of a big leaguer is nowhere near as long. Time moves differently for the players.
Finally, the elephant in the room is wealth disparity. Granted, the players are not paupers. The median salary among the players in 2021 checked in at a healthy 1.15 million USD. Compared to the deep pockets of club owners, though, the players are bringing a wiffle bat to a gunfight.
According to Forbes, as of June 2020 the richest ten owners in baseball controlled 31 billion USD in wealth. And as they point out, that count does not include Rogers Communications or Liberty Media, the media titans that own the Toronto Blue Jays and Atlanta Braves, respectively. If a work stoppage reaches a point where revenue streams are affected, the owners’ deeper pockets can weather losses better than the players.
But for anyone who is looking for reason to think the players know what they are facing and are better prepared than they have perhaps been in the past, an offhand paragraph from an article in The Athletic last week provides a little bit of light in the night that they might not get steamrolled by the owners. Evan Drellich and Ken Rosenthal summarized an agent guide that the MLBPA created to answer questions about the looming work stoppage. As always, it is behind a paywall, but this excerpt immediately raised my eyebrows:
In the past, the guide notes, players usually gave up an escalating amount of their licensing checks leading up to the expiration of a collective bargaining agreement. In 2018, the players adopted a more aggressive policy, voting to withhold full licensing checks... The continuation of this policy, coupled with expanded business partnerships, means that PA financial preparations will be at historic levels in advance of Dec. 1, 2021,’ the union wrote.
For context’s sake, after the 2016 CBA resolution, the players recouped more than 125 million USD after they gave up the aforementioned “escalating amount of their licensing checks.” For three years now, the players have been banking their entire licensing checks in advance of this labor fight. I think it is fair to assume that the licensing check war chest this time around exceeds, perhaps greatly, the 125 million USD from the last labor negotiations.
According to the agent guide, the players have been girding for this labor battle for years, importantly stashing away money so that the union can provide financial support to the players if it comes to that. Moreover, past MLBPA practices included tapping reserves to provide players interest-free loans. Given that the agent guide mentions that avenue, it is likely it will again be available if necessary.
Ultimately, the players’ preparations would almost certainly not be enough to withstand the owners in a nuclear scenario. But if a work stoppage gets to that point, it is an unmitigated disaster for everyone involved. The more optimistic (and likely?) scenario is that the player’s savings will allow them to maintain solidarity during a work stoppage that only cuts into the season a little bit, akin to the one in 1972 that only affected a couple of weeks. Maybe they’re even prepared enough to withstand a 1980-esque stoppage, wherein over 700 games and 145 million USD in salaries and revenue were lost.
More intangibly, that the players have been hoarding treasure for over three years is a sign that they might mean serious business. There is a convincing case to be made that the players got their clocks cleaned in the 2016 negotiations that led to the soon-to-expire CBA. I am not interested (okay, I am, but not in this context) in exploring the MLBPA’s current priority list as they try to undo some of the previous gains the owners made at their expense. There are already plenty of articles online discussing what the union is after.
The interesting, and important, part for me is that it looks like the players realize they are going to have to fight for those priorities and they have planned accordingly. With any luck, this will all be much ado about nothing, the season will start on time, and the Yankees will win World Series number 28, making me a much happier person. But if a work stoppage lingers, it looks like the players are ready.