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MLB players insist there should be a 162-game season in 2021

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This is not going to end well.

Amanda Juech

Over the last couple of days I’ve written here about MLB wanting to expand playoffs and also about quite a number of things still undetermined for any 2021 season.

In the latter of those posts, I quoted this from an article in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune:

As demonstrated last June, players understandably want to play as many games as possible and be paid their full salaries for it. But once the length of the season is on the table, as owners will surely demand if fans cannot attend, they can only go down from 162.

This is where we stand, then, and the players’ position is underlined in this article by Evan Drellich in The Athletic:

Major League Baseball has asked the Players Association if it would be open to a shortened season in 2021, particularly one starting a month late, sources said. The union’s position has remained unchanged from what executive director Tony Clark outlined at the start of the offseason: The players are planning for a 162-game season and plan to show up to spring training on time.

In a USA Today story Tuesday, team owners were quoted as skeptical that a full-length calendar could be played.

Drellich goes on to note that because the sport is being governed by a collective-bargaining agreement that is in force until the end of 2021, MLB owners can’t simply unilaterally impose a shortened season on the players. It would have to be negotiated, as the 60-game 2020 season was last summer.

You know how well those talks went. “Acrimonious” doesn’t begin to describe them.

And Drellich notes:

The union does not appear opposed to any revision of the schedule, but if a reduction in games played is to include a drop in pay, the players are uninterested. If the games would be made up later in the year or player pay would be the same, there could be greater room for discussion. To this point, MLB has indicated interest only in a scenario that includes reductions for missed games.

You know how well reduced pay is going to go over with players, which is to say that probably makes a shortened season a non-starter, unless other sweeteners are given by owners. Owners don’t want a season stretching into November or later, given potential TV conflicts. (For good or bad, TV money is driving this discussion. Whether that’s good or not is a subject for another day.)

We are at this point because the pandemic is still raging in most parts of the country. Cases and deaths are surging and we are being warned that holiday gatherings later this month could make things worse. Few people have the stomach for any more lockdowns, but there still isn’t much call for large gatherings of people as you’d have during baseball Spring Training, or having fans in the stands in certain parts of the country due to local restrictions. As I wrote Monday regarding spring camps:

The Cubs used 95 different players in 2020 spring camp, including guys from the minor-league camp in almost every game — and that’s with the last two weeks of games cancelled. With only 60 players in “spring camps,” wherever they’d be held, the current spring schedule, which the Cubs are scheduled to begin February 27 against the Dodgers at Sloan Park, is likely untenable.

It was pointed out to me earlier today that some NFL teams have had small portions of their stadiums filled with fans, which is true. We don’t know whether those gatherings have spread COVID-19 or not, since contact tracing is not a thing the NFL is doing. “If the NFL does it, why can’t MLB do it?”

The simple answer is this: NFL teams garner the overwhelming majority of their revenue from the massive national TV contracts, where the money is split evenly among all 32 teams. Per this article that amounted to about $255 million per NFL team in 2019. NFL teams didn’t really care much whether they could have revenue from fan attendance or not, because of this huge national TV windfall.

That isn’t the case for MLB teams. Yes, MLB has national TV deals. They pay about $90 million a year per team, far less than an NFL team receives, and local TV contracts for MLB teams (something that simply doesn’t exist in the NFL) have wildly differing amounts. Per this Fangraphs article, in 2020 (before pro-ration for lost games) MLB local TV money ranged from $239 million (Dodgers) to $20 million (Marlins). The Cubs were in the middle at an estimated $100 million.

So ticket revenue is more important to baseball teams. They were estimated to have lost $3 billion in ticket revenue in 2020; the Cubs claimed that was 70 percent of revenues. While many are skeptical of that percentage, it’s clear that the Cubs lost a considerable amount of revenue by not having three million fans at Wrigley Field in 2020.

And thus if local restrictions remain regarding fan gatherings in Chicago, or New York, or parts of California (as they are now) or other MLB markets, MLB is likely to enforce the same fan protocols in 2021 as they did in 2020: Either all teams can have fans, or none. This would likely be the same if a small percentage of capacity were allowed; if, say, 20 percent capacity were allowed in Chicago but full houses in Texas (for example), MLB would probably limit all teams to 20 percent capacity.

This is a long-winded way of saying that I cannot imagine MLB opening up Spring Training on time — they might not be able to have fans there, either — or the season knowing they’d be playing in empty ballparks again, if they have to pay players full salaries for 2021. That would have to be a non-starter for most team owners.

This idea is floated in Drellich’s article:

At the same time, it’s easy to envision a scenario where starting the season later is both easier and ostensibly safer for players. But should they have to give up pay to pursue that scenario if it involves a later start to the season? One idea floating in the industry is to increase the number of doubleheaders in a shortened schedule in order to maintain the number of games played. (Even just adding off days to the schedule, which could make rescheduling easier amidst any COVID-19 outbreaks, could be complicated, but the expectation of a vaccine might lessen that urgency.)

That sounds somewhat reasonable, but then there’s this:

To get to a season with fewer games, MLB could attempt to invoke the national emergency language in the CBA and suspend the season, barring a new agreement with the union, but such a tactic would likely be poorly received and could be grounds for a grievance. The union has been planning to file a grievance over scheduling the 2020 season already. The league’s position might be shaky, as well, because both sides have already seen that games can be played during the time of COVID-19 — even though the country technically is in a state of national emergency.

Yikes. That’s all we need, more grievances between the MLBPA and team owners, heading into CBA negotiations for 2022 and beyond.

All of this has to be negotiated. Yet players and owners have not sat down to even begin talks on the framework of a 2021 season — as noted above, players simply say they’re ready for Spring Training as scheduled. But it does not seem likely that’s going to happen on time, and now that we’re approaching the holidays, it’s even less likely that negotiations would begin before the first of the year.

I am going to stand by this prediction:

  • Spring Training as currently scheduled will be cancelled
  • A “Spring Camp” will be held in April, either at current spring sites or at MLB parks similar to “Summer Camp” last July
  • A 110-120 game season will begin sometime in mid or late May

This is a train wreck waiting to happen. Owners and players can stop it, but they’d better start talking, and soon.

Poll

The 2021 season...

This poll is closed

  • 23%
    ... will begin on schedule with Spring Training in late February and Opening Day April 1
    (33 votes)
  • 43%
    ... will begin sometime in May with a 110-120 game season
    (61 votes)
  • 27%
    ... will begin later than May with fewer than 110 games
    (39 votes)
  • 5%
    Something else (leave in comments)
    (8 votes)
141 votes total Vote Now