Are you angry?
If you visit this humble ‘lil website on a regular basis, that means you are a baseball fan and, more specifically, a Philadelphia Phillies fan. It also likely means you’re some combination of angry, disappointed, frustrated and maybe even infuriated that the sport you enjoy, the sport that holds your hand through the summer, the sport that is handed down from generation to generation, and the sport you’ve encouraged your children to adopt and love, is abandoning you.
Of course, if you’re angry, you’re also probably going to come back when the sport gets its head out of its posterior. For casual sports fans, the lure of baseball has waned over the years and, for many, they just don’t care. They don’t care about the owners, the union, the economics, or even that, for the first time in 27 years, games are being cancelled because of a labor stoppage.
With COVID-19 restrictions easing around the country this spring and the pandemic morphing into something endemic in our society, baseball stood to enter the 2022 season with the prospect of fewer COVID outbreaks that would cause the cancellation of games, stadiums full of fans, and a population ready to enjoy the sounds of summer unfettered once again. Instead, this past week saw repeated walks of shame from one end of a Florida parking lot to the other as owners and players traded offers during negotiations that never were as far along as reporters told us they were.
So if you’re angry, you have every right to be. Lucy pulled the football away once again, and there’s really only one place to direct that anger.
MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred, and his owners-employers, all of whom prioritized breaking the union rather than playing a full baseball season, risking burning down their own sport in the process.
Let’s be clear here, there is only one side to blame. The apparent eagerness by owners of baseball teams to not play baseball games this year has been startling, if unsurprising, to watch. Throughout the process, Manfred and the owners negotiated in bad faith, even as the cards were stacked in their favor, prioritizing the extraction of every last dollar, quarter, dime and penny from the game’s overstocked coffers, rather than honestly working with players on a new CBA that would benefit everyone.
If you want to know the true intentions of Manfred and the owners, it’s important to examine their actions, not their rhetoric.
On December 2, upon the expiration of the Collective Bargaining Agreement, Manfred instituted the lockout, saying, “Simply put, we believe that an offseason lockout is the best mechanism to protect the 2022 season. We hope that the lockout will jumpstart the negotiations and get us to an agreement that will allow the season to start on time.”
Manfred’s idea of “jumpstarting” negotiations was then to wait 43 days before making their first official offer to the players, an offer so laughably out of touch with what the union was seeking as to not be taken seriously. Additional offers came and went sporadically, sometimes a full week between responses from one side to the other.
It quickly became clear the lockout was never about getting to the bargaining table more quickly, nor to create a sense of urgency. It was created to act as a guillotine hanging over the union’s heads.
Early last month, two weeks after reneging on a response to a union counter-offer, Manfred requested a federal mediator to intervene, a request the MLBPA refused. Rebuffed, Manfred and the owners began negotiating again, but created an artificial deadline of Feb. 28 for a deal to be reached before, Manfred claimed, the league would need to start cancelling games.
Finally, with just a week and a half remaining before that Feb. 28 “deadline,” both sides began meeting everyday in Florida. And as the two sides engaged in a marathon set of negotiations on Monday, the league gave everyone one more day to hopefully wrap things up. By late Monday night, reporters were being told that significant progress had been made and a feeling of optimism permeated the proceedings.
But that, as we found out, was not true, as Toronto Blue Jays player-rep Ross Stripling made clear after it all fell apart yesterday afternoon.
If you’re wondering why the union escapes blame for the current situation, the answer is simple — they have been playing by an unfair set of rules under an arcane financial structure that has not kept up with the rapid growth of Major League Baseball since the last CBA. By any objective standard, the offers made by the union were still overly generous to ownership, but aimed to prevent teams from tanking, pay younger players more during their first three seasons and reduce the severity of the luxury tax, which has become a de facto salary cap.
The MLBPA's previous offer:— Jeff Passan (@JeffPassan) March 1, 2022
- CBT thresholds at 238/244/250/256/263
- Pre-arb bonus pool at $85M with $5M annual increases
- Minimums at $725K going up $20K a year
Owners felt the mere creation of a pre-arbitration bonus poll for players with less than three years of service time (other than the Super-2s) was a huge gift to the union, but only wanted to fund it with $30 million, a ridiculously low number. The union dropped their number from an an initial $100 million to $85 million. Why is this so important? A Princeton Review study found that, among players who eventually reach the big leagues, the average MLB career lasts 2.7 years. I’m sure it’s just a coincidence owners didn’t want arbitration to begin after two years of service time rather than three, right? In 2014, Baseball Prospectus broke it down by position and found variation depending on where players played, but the bottom line is that very few players are in the big leagues long enough to make a life off of it.
Even given all that, even given the revenue the league generates on a yearly basis, a difference of $55 million shouldn’t have been a deal breaker, and the two sides were not that far apart in minimum salaries, either. However, the competitive balance tax (CBT) thresholds were a huge sticking point.
On Monday, Manfred once again bemoaned the financial status of the 30 clubs, claiming the pandemic-shorted, 60-game 2020 campaign took a devastating toll on the league’s owners.
"You also need to remember that the last 5 years have been very difficult years from a revenue perspective for the industry given the pandemic" - Rob Manfred pic.twitter.com/GHLMOIUwVd— SNY (@SNYtv) March 1, 2022
He makes this claim, of course, knowing his owners do not need to release their financials for anyone to see an honest assessment of how much revenue and profit these teams make. We are to take him at his word. He would have you believe owning a baseball team is bad business, a financial loser compared to simply throwing cash into a money market account, and that owners really don’t have as much wiggle room as the players think.
There's still time for any MLB owner to cash out and buy stocks. MLB teams have gained more value than the S&P 500, Dow Jones, Russell 2000, and Gold since 2001. https://t.co/BdDKUU7sXl pic.twitter.com/wQBEa8fk6o— Travis Sawchik (@Travis_Sawchik) February 28, 2022
There is one team, however, that does release their financial records every year, the Atlanta Braves. They are a mid-market team, not rich and not poor, and perhaps a good mid-point to assess just how profitable it is to own a baseball franchise.
Liberty Media has released 4Q and total revenue. Guess what? The Braves made a lot of money!— Jeff Schultz (@JeffSchultzATL) February 25, 2022
Via press release: record $568 million in revenue total in 2021, major increase from the last full season with fans in 2019 ($476m) and obviously the pandemic season ($178 million). More:
There’s no doubt teams lost money during the 2020 season. That’s not debatable. But what about every other season? You know, seasons that weren’t interrupted by global pandemics? What about those? We’re supposed to believe the entire last five years have been hard because of one bad year at the gates? Of course, it’s a silly claim, one the players didn’t buy and shouldn’t.
Rob Manfred: "The last five years were difficult from a revenue perspective."— Jason Mastrodonato (@JMastrodonato) March 1, 2022
In 2019, the last season before the pandemic, MLB revenues jumped for a 17th straight year to a record $10.7 billion, per Forbes.
And as the owners tried to squeeze every last dollar out of the younger players in the sport came news this week the league was close to landing another national television deal, one worth $100-150 million, all the while pushing for a 14-team playoff expansion that would have resulted in even more cash flowing for all 30 teams.
ESPN is set to pay MLB an extra $100M a year in a 14-team MLB playoff setup.— Andrew Marchand (@AndrewMarchand) March 1, 2022
If it ends up a 12-team format, sources say that number per year is expected to drop into the $85M range.
The union was not looking to reinvent the economics of the game in this CBA, despite what some might say. They were looking for some structural changes that would have made the game fairer for younger players and help the overall financial health of the sport. Yes, they were acting in their own interests but, in this case, their interests were also what’s best for the overall health of the sport. But rather than reach a compromise that would still have allowed owners to rake in cash hand over fist, they instead decided to slow play negotiations and, with an artificial clock ticking in the background, force the union into a take it-or-leave it deal.
The timing of this announcement could not have been worse. Baseball is a great sport, but in its current form, it is not a sport that is capturing the imagination of young people in America. In 2017, the average age of a baseball fan was 57 years of age, up from 52 years old in 2005. As the report notes, “the average ages of NBA, NHL and NFL fans are 42, 49 and 51, respectively.” Too often the game is devoid of action and excitement, especially during the dog days of regular season summer baseball, a time when, unlike the postseason, it doesn’t feel as if every pitch matters.
Everyone should be putting everything they can, all their attention and resources, into growing the game, marketing its stars, making it hip, and finding creative ways to inject it into the mainstream culture. Sadly, that isn’t even on the radar right now.
When the league locked the players out, Manfred said it was done to avoid the cancellation of games, at the time calling the scenario a “disastrous outcome.” And yet, he and his cadre of owners decided that, after locking out the players and engaging in radio silence for more than five weeks, weeks in which both sides could have been hard at work hammering out a deal, a last minute sprint to their self-created deadline wasn’t enough to prevent that outcome from becoming reality.
It would be wonderful if the MLB Commissioner cared more about the integrity of the game and doing what’s best for the future of the sport rather than acted solely in the interests of the owners who hired him, but that’s not the world in which we live.
As such, there’s really only one logical place to direct your anger, if you even care enough about baseball anymore to be angry.