Back in March – yes, it feels like years ago – when the NFL and the NFL Players Association agreed to a new collective bargaining agreement that will run through 2030, the owners successfully incentivized younger, cheaper players to vote “yes” by boosting minimum salaries. With about 60 percent of NFL players making minimum salaries, and only a majority vote needed to pass the CBA, it was pretty obvious the strategy was going to work, even though the players were divided.
Higher-paid players like Richard Sherman, J.J. Watt and Russell Wilson were outspoken against the deal. The NFLPA executive committee had a narrow 6-5 vote to even send the proposal to the entire membership to pass or reject. And in the end, the new CBA passed by a narrow vote of 1,019-959.
I couldn’t help but think about that strategy Tuesday when Major League Baseball made its first economic proposal to the players union in an effort to salvage the 2020 season. The proposal essentially calls for a sliding scale in which the league’s highest-paid players take the biggest pay cut, while the lowest-paid players take the smallest cut. ESPN reported that a player due an already agreed upon prorated salary of $17.7 million would now only see $7.84 million under this proposal. But a player due a prorated salary of $1.01 million would see $736,000. ESPN also reported that about 65 percent of MLB players make $1 million or less.
Seen another way: 82-game prorated salaries vs. MLB's proposal— Jeff Passan (@JeffPassan) May 26, 2020
From a negotiating standpoint, the strategy is sound. But the economic landscape in Major League Baseball is much different than the NFL. And that’s why this proposal will not pass in its current form.
For one, the MLBPA is much more unified than the NFLPA. A young, cheaper baseball player is more likely to vote in unison simply based on principle than a young, cheap NFL player. And yet, the NFL CBA only passed with a 51.5 percent majority even though 60 percent of the league was going to get an immediate 20 percent raise on a minimum salary deal if the vote passed. Simply put: the vote was closer than the money suggested it should be.
But when it comes to these negotiations, it is still smart to follow the money. On top of being more unified, the MLBPA is dealing with much different economics. In football, salaries are generally structured by position. A young linebacker knows he will never make quarterback money. In baseball, pretty much every position except non-closer bullpen arms can cash in if they become stars. And even the pitchers in the bullpen can make plenty of money over long careers.
Football is much different. The careers are shorter. Every year, a significant portion of every NFL roster is made up of young players on their first contract who know it is unlikely they’ll ever see a second contract. If you were one of those players making $510,000 and knew you could get an immediate $100,000 raise by voting “yes” on a new CBA, would you do it?
In baseball, a young player that has already made it to the big leagues is in position to stick around for a while, even if he doesn’t live up to expectations. Heck, Gordon Beckham was still in the league last year. Players know they have access to arbitration and a much better chance to hit their big pay day with a much smaller chance of injuries derailing their career. Plus, pandemics aside, the money is guaranteed.
In other words, there’s much more reason for a young, cheap baseball player to follow the voting recommendations of the MLBPA representatives instead of taking a short-term cash grab.
That said, every negotiation has compromises and you can understand why the owners are asking its most expensive employees to bite the bullet. Top executives for teams like the Cubs, Mets and Padres are taking the most severe pay cuts because they can most afford it. And while there’s certainly a valid argument that the owners are the richest components in the equation, there also needs to be some understanding that just because an owner is worth billions, not all of that net worth is liquid. Every ownership situation is different, and some teams are bleeding more cash than others, depending on their entire portfolio. For example, the Cubs, with all their real estate investments and dependency on gate revenue, would lose more money in an 82-game season without fans than the White Sox, even though the overall value of the North Side club is higher. Thus, the White Sox have committed to full salaries with no furloughs through the end of June. The Cubs could not commit to full salaries, but they are not issuing furloughs.
Here’s what I know: the fans are tired of hearing about all this. The optics of billionaires and millionaires arguing over money is not good, even if it is necessary in the exact business in which they all operate. For once, the NHL outshined MLB by announcing an exciting 24-team tournament that revived some teams’ seasons and generated excitement all over the sports landscape. In Chicago, the Blackhawks are alive when their season was previously dead. Never mind that the health and economic specifics still need to be hashed out. If the NHL and its players can negotiate that amicably while the fans fill out their brackets, it will be a huge win for hockey.
Take note, baseball.