We’re closing in on 100 days of the owner-imposed lockout, and unfortunately the baseball world, alas, has become rather predictable. Major League Baseball presents a disingenuous offer for the new Collective Bargaining Agreement to the union that is dead on arrival, the Player’s Association counters by making a concession or two, the league reveals through the media that they consider the union’s proposal an insult of some kind, and nothing gets done. We’re a cross between Groundhog Day and Major League.
Fortunately for us, there’s a rather straightforward solution that might just be the key to forging a breakthrough. Unfortunately, it also appears to be one that is not, at the moment, currently on the table: league expansion.
As far as CBA negotiations go, the introduction of two teams to the league would be an extremely bold proposal that would force both sides to reconsider just about everything they have discussed so far. With the negotiations as “deadlocked” as they currently are, however, this radical shift in the landscape might just be what might bring the two sides closer to a deal.
To begin with, let’s start with something that would, technically, fall outside the CBA: the expansion fees. As we all know, the league has two primary goals at the moment, to find new revenue streams (e.g., expanded playoffs, advertisements on jerseys) and reign in expenditures (e.g., by strengthening the Collective Balance Tax penalties). In 1998, the Arizona Diamondbacks and Tampa Bay Devil Rays each paid $130 million to enter the league. Since then, expansion fees have grown massively — the Seattle Kraken, for instance, paid a $650 million fee to the NHL prior to the 2021-2022 season. It’s not all that unreasonable to think Major League Baseball would require an expansion fee in excess of a billion dollars, even if Manfred’s $2.2 billion estimate might be a little on the high side. In either case, that’s not a small chunk of change, and we all know how much the league likes even its pennies.
More important than the expansion fees, however, is how expansion affects the rest of the proposals. We know that the league is obsessed with expanding the playoffs to 14 teams — ESPN’s Buster Olney goes so far as to describe it as a “need.” With 30 teams, it’s an absolutely awful proposal, which would result in 83-win teams making the playoffs annually and 79-win teams making it with some level of regularity. While I would personally still prefer just 12 playoff teams at most, the addition of two extra teams (and the division realignment that would require) makes it much more palatable.
In turn, the players receive something that they are already fighting for: more competition. Two additional teams means 80 more 40-man roster spots, and that means more opportunities for Quadruple-A types to stick at the bottom of the roster, driving up the prices for quality bench pieces. Additionally, two more bidders would be added to free agency — two teams that, at least early on, are also likely to be active in free agency as they attempt to carve out a loyal fanbase.
Last, and arguably most importantly, expansion would do something that would be to the benefit of both owners and players — rebuild public excitement around baseball. Let’s be honest: between Rob Manfred calling the World Series trophy “a hunk of metal,” the Astros sign-stealing scandal, the league’s refusal to play more than 60 games in 2020, the absurdity that was ghost runners and seven-inning doubleheaders, Manfred laughing and smiling at the press conference announcing that regular season games were canceled, the constant tanking, and the continued insistence on having people who seem to hate the game of baseball call the nationally-televised games, the sport has suffered in the court of public opinion in recent years, and for good reason. Expansion brings energy and excitement, energy and excitement that the sport desperately needs.
Alas, it does not seem that expansion is on the table at this time. Despite interest, the league has insisted on securing new stadiums for the Oakland Athletics and Tampa Bay Rays before they even consider bringing new teams on board. Unfortunately, to ignore a potential way towards creating a breakthrough in negotiations seems entirely on brand for MLB at this time.