Why you should care
Because fans need to pick a side to be heard when the games stop.
Fans are loath to pick a side in the percolating baseball labor dispute. When the game is interrupted by an expected strike in late March 2022, fans will first despise the billionaire owners as much as the millionaire players and drag them both through the mud with the same horse.
It’s time for fans to pick a side. Choose the players.
Not because you’re sympathetic to millionaires, but because the owners have too much money and leverage. The players are prepared to dig in and extract concessions when their collective bargaining agreement ends Dec. 1, 2021 … or not report to work come spring.
The strike will happen, like it did in 1994 when the World Series was canceled.
The guaranteed revenue streams of the owners should have already tipped your sympathy quotient to the players. Sure, Los Angeles Dodgers southpaw Clayton Kershaw makes a million dollars every time he takes the mound, but the owners are running a sport with more than $10 billion in revenue last year, according to Forbes, and that’s before an expected windfall from legal gambling. The players get about $4 billion of the revenue … and their share actually decreased from 2017 to 2018.
Look at how much money is being made in this game. We’re the ones putting asses in the seats.
Tampa Bay Rays center fielder Kevin Kiermaier
This is having the biggest impact on baseball’s middle class, which is disappearing as fast as it is in the real world. Mike Trout (Angels), Bryce Harper (Phillies), Manny Machado (Dodgers) and Nolan Arenado (Rockies) have recently signed a combined $1.3 billion in long-term contracts. Meanwhile, Atlanta Braves phenom Ronald Acuña Jr. — already one of the best players in the game at 21 — will make $560,000 this year.
General managers are OK paying the superstars and they are really OK paying the kids, because they have them under control for six years before they can hit free agency. And the rest? Analytics are eating baseball, not only in terms of making games longer but also with owners using big data to examine contracts and declare over-30 players in the middle class as wasteful spending. Free agents Dallas Keuchel and Craig Kimbrel, among others, remain unsigned.
The owners are unilaterally overhauling the salary structure of the game to shed older, expensive nonperformers. It makes sense. Albert Pujols, 39, is making $28 million and batted .245 with a measly 19 home runs last year. But the owners are reluctant, so far, to rework the salary structure on the other end with young players. It’s supposed to be six years to free agency and a big payday, but general managers will manipulate service time to make it seven years by holding players an extra month in the minors. The Cubs did it to Kris Bryant, and the Braves did it to Acuña.
Management insists having a six-year reserve hold on players keeps competitive balance in the game because small-market teams have fixed costs. It helps explain how the Kansas City Royals won the World Series in 2015. But the prime years of a player are younger now.
Tampa Bay Rays center fielder Kevin Kiermaier says that players are developing faster because of better weight training, nutrition and coaching, as well as single-sport devotion to baseball. Studies are finding that the prime years for pitchers are 23 and 24, not 26 and 27. “The game really seems to be getting younger,” says Atlanta pitcher Jonny Venters, 34, who like many in his age bracket can feel the market shifting.
Venters and his $2.25 million salary this season not drawing your sympathy? Fine. Look at the minor leaguers, some of whom are making less than minimum wage — as Congress passed a law last year to keep them exempt from federal labor laws. A group of Los Angeles Angels prospects sat in a bullpen during a rain delay and figured out they were making less than the kid who had just delivered their pizza.
But perhaps the best reason fans should oppose MLB management is the epidemic of tanking. There were three American League teams over 100 wins for the first time in 2018. Why? Because teams like the Rays, the Orioles and the White Sox are not trying very hard.
In the NBA, teams tank to get a high draft pick and get better. In baseball, it’s because the owners don’t want to pay for the best talent. Sports economist Andrew Zimbalist of Smith College says the cheapskates need to be held accountable with a reverse luxury tax penalizing teams that are too far under the salary cap.
It should piss you off to see the Braves, for example, build a stadium mostly with tax dollars and increase ticket prices 45 percent (according to an analysis from Team Marketing Report), and not increase their payroll accordingly. And a can of beer is still $12. In the NFL, meanwhile, the Atlanta Falcons and other teams have lowered ticket and concessions prices.
Matt Wieters, the veteran St. Louis catcher, says “the players will stick to the facts” as they make their case in the labor dispute. That’s not a good idea. The facts need to be revved up with emotion. Kiermaier tried to be measured with his words, but he finally told me: “We have to stand our ground and put our foot down. You don’t want it to get too ugly, but at the same time, we have to stick up for us … Look at how much money is being made in this game. We’re the ones putting asses in the seats.”
Of course, the owners might come out ahead in all of this anyway with a campaign of grievance. Fans tend to “wish a pox on both the house of the owner and athlete,” Zimbalist says.
But if fans choose wisely, they have new ways to influence the outcome. Social media was not around in 1994. What kind of Twitter spat could erupt? What kinds of fan clubs could roil the waters? I, for one, would like to find out.
The players are building a war chest by deferring their licensing revenue. They want to find out too.