May 21, 2020 - Sports

This year’s baseball season hinges on a battle between owners and players

Kendall Baker, author of Sports

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

Whether baseball is played this season hinges on an extremely contagious virus that is unlike anything we've ever seen. But next in line is whether MLB owners (billionaires) and players (mostly millionaires) can settle an economic dispute.

Why it matters: If the 2020 MLB season doesn't happen because of safety or logistical concerns, that's understandable. But if money is the issue a year after MLB grossed a record $10.7 billion in revenue, it would be a PR disaster — and the sport might never recover.

  • Even if we never reach that point, the longer this infighting goes on while a historic number of Americans are out of work (36 million jobless claims in the last two months), the angrier baseball fans are going to get.

The backdrop: In late March, MLB and the MLBPA struck a deal that guaranteed players prorated salaries based on the number of games played. From the union's perspective, this ends the matter and no new negotiations are needed.

  • But the March agreement was reportedly "contingent on playing in front of fans at regular-season ballparks," per AP.
  • It's now obvious fans won't be in the stands if and when baseball returns, so owners want to renegotiate since they'll be losing billions of dollars on ticket sales, concessions and parking.

The state of play: The two sides are in their second week of a contentious back-and-forth about a potential 2020 season. The hope is they can reach an agreement by June 3, with players reporting to spring training on June 10, and the season starting around July 1.

  • May 11: Owners approve a plan that includes an 82-game regional schedule and universal DH, expanded rosters (30-man active roster and 20-player taxi squad), an expanded postseason (14 teams instead of 10) and a 50-50 revenue split for players and owners.
  • May 14: Rays pitcher Blake Snell makes headlines when he says on a Twitch stream that he will sit out the season if there's a 50-50 revenue split, suggesting the risk of contracting COVID-19 is "just not worth it."
  • May 18: In documents obtained by The Associated Press, owners claim they will lose $640,000 per game without fans in attendance.
  • May 20: The above number was calculated by MLB, so the skeptical union has requested a slew of documents, which will be presented tomorrow, according to USA Today's Bob Nightengale.
"As is almost always the case when there is a work stoppage in sports, the players will get the brunt of the criticism. They are more visible, and the average fan finds their salaries stunning. But here's a fact: The owners are far more wealthy and ... won't be putting their health at risk."
— John Feinstein, WashPost

The bottom line: As baseball weighs a return to the diamond, owners and players are embroiled in a very public argument, starring "leaked" documents, a so-called "smoking email," and a viral Twitch video.

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