MLB and the MLBPA met today in what is the start of talks between the league and the union on playing the 2020 season, which has been put on hold due to the novel coronavirus. Jon Heyman says that health and safety was the main topic of discussion today, with no concrete economic proposal put on the table by the owners.
In a best case scenario spring training would not start for another 3-4 weeks, with actual play not happening until July. Decisions will have to be made fairly soon, but there is time for negotiations and exchanges to take place, and I wouldn’t expect anything to start crystallizing until Memorial Day, at the earliest.
Part of this is because of the fluid nature of the current situation. The number of cases and deaths appears to be slowly heading downwards in the United States, and there is now movement on easing the lockdown restrictions that have been in place around most of the country the past two months. There’s also ongoing efforts to increase the amount of testing that can be done, which is critical for MLB, because if the league cannot provide enough testing to be able to identify players who contract COVID-19 and quickly quarantine them, all the other discussions about resuming play in 2020 will end up being moot.
There’s also the fact that the most contentious part of the negotiations will likely be on the financial side. Owners are seeking additional concessions from the players, arguing that they will lose money if they play a shortened season with no fans in the stands, and that they’d be better off financially simply canceling the season. Thus, the owners say, the players need to make concessions, and should agree to link the amount they receive in salaries in 2020 to revenues.
From the players’ standpoint, this is obviously problematic. Owners are the ones who reap huge financial rewards from ownership of the teams, and that is generally justified, in large part, by the claim that the owners are the ones taking the risks. The MLBPA is going to see changing the rules for 2020 to link salaries to revenues as ownership wanting to keep the financial windfalls for themselves when things are going well, but then have the players help subsidize the losses now that times are terrible.
There’s also the fact that it is the players who are having to physically perform and put themselves out into the world right now, not the owners. The owners can continue to self-isolate as they see fit, protect themselves from exposure to COVID-19, and maintain a high level of personal safety. Players are the ones who will be at risk of exposure, will be facing potential isolation from their families, and will have to worry about whether they are a virus vector, whether they will potential expose and risk the lives of their loved ones.
All that being said, my guess is that, if the health and travel logistics can be worked out, there will be a season. Players want to play, if it can be done safely and responsibly — their windows of being able to perform at the professional level are already short, and they’re going to want to try to avoid losing any of that time. Owners don’t want a canceled season, which will cost them money, reduce the values of their franchises, and cast a cloud over the sport as a whole.
So expect posturing and press release and sound bites from folks over the next week or two. We will have a better idea how serious everyone is about getting back on the field this year, and how realistic it is to do it safely, in a couple of weeks.