MLB has proposed to the MLBPA that that the start of the 2021 season be delayed by one month, with the season being extended by a week on the back end, playing a 154 game schedule, and implementing expanded playoffs, per Tim Brown on Twitter. This is due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, and is on the heels of Cactus League and Arizona officials requesting that MLB delay the start of spring training.
At this point, any delays in starting either spring training or the season are about trying to maximize the window available to have fans in the stands. Municipalities and businesses that are geared around spring training make their money off of folks coming out to spring training, not from the players and teams actually being present. The folks in Peoria, Surprise, and other Cactus League cities are going to be looking at a significant revenue shortfall if they hold spring training and fans aren’t there (or if very limited numbers of fans are allowed).
Similarly, while we can debate exactly how much MLB owners suffered due to the pandemic-shortened 2020 season and a year with no fans in the stands, there’s no question that they took it in the shorts financially in 2020, and I have no doubt the idea of starting 2021 with either no fans in the seats, or stadiums being open to only a fraction of capacity, is highly unappealing to them.
Thus we have this proposal, which Brown says was made on Friday, which is geared towards pushing things back a little back in the hopes that spring training can be more normal if it starts in mid-March rather than mid-February, and more fans will be able to buy tickets in May than in April.
Brown says that players would get their full salaries despite it being just a 154 game season, and I think that’s a significant point that shouldn’t be glossed over. Players lost around two-thirds of their salaries in 2020, and with the pandemic still ongoing, there would seem to be at least some risk that MLB would be able to use a force majeure argument to implement a shortened season with pro-rated salaries if a deal isn’t struck, since under the Uniform Player Contract, MLB can suspend the terms of a player’s contract during a national emergency.
I suspect that the players getting a guarantee that they will get paid in full in 2021 will be a powerful motivator to do a deal — especially among the rank-and-file who haven’t made enough to be set yet.
As I’m writing this, more details are coming out — Buster Olney says that spring training would start March 22, and the regular season April 28. Jon Heyman says that the universal DH would be part of the deal, as well, though that’s not surprising, since it seems like owners kind of want a universal DH anyway (which is why players aren’t treating getting a universal DH as any sort of significant concession).
I have seen folks on Twitter argue that the expanded playoffs are such a big win for the owners that the players need to push back on this — that they aren’t really getting anything meaningful in this deal, and by agreeing to expanded playoffs they are giving the owners the main thing ownership wants for the next CBA and losing all their leverage. I disagree.
I think there’s a real risk that, if MLB and the MLBPA don’t get an agreement, then MLB will end up triggering the clause in the UPC that allows suspensions of contracts during a national emergency to unilaterally implement a shorter season. There will then be grievances and recriminations and the like, and maybe the players win, or maybe they lose. But I think there’s a legitimate risk that, absent an agreement, there’s a shortened season and players don’t get their full 2021 salaries, and I think one year of expanded playoffs is worth locking in full pay for 2021.
I also think that the idea that, if you agree to expanded playoffs in 2021, you lose all your negotiating leverage going forward is misguided. The owners want expanded playoffs. The owners benefit from expanded playoffs. I think there’s an argument to be made that giving the owners expanded playoffs, letting them experience those benefits and see how good it is for them, makes the owners more desirous to get expanded playoffs in the next CBA. And if the owners’ desire for expanded playoffs increases, then what they are willing to give up to keep that in place will increase, as well.
In any case, as I mentioned on Twitter, this seems like a surprisingly reasonable proposal from the owners — so much so it makes me wonder if there’s a poison pill or something in here I’m missing. I am hopeful that the players and owners can get something along these lines worked out sooner rather than later.
UPDATE — Joel Sherman says that the union “does not see this proposal as guaranteeing 162 games of pay for 154 games,” because MLB could still cancel games and then the players wouldn’t get their full pay. If that is the case, then this goes from being a very reasonable proposal to a non-starter.
UPDATE II — Bob Nightengale writes that the MLBPA plans on formally informing MLB that it is rejecting the proposal on Monday.