The return of big-time sports feels like something that is being desperately worked on, and for good reason: There’s something in it for a lot of powerful entities.
Team owners would love to capture some sort of revenue in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, even if the main source is television revenue while fans are kept away for safety reasons. Players have income on the line, too — not to mention returning to competition and the games they love. Broadcast partners are desperate for programming. The Jordan documentary is only 10 episodes (two left), not 100.
National and local government would love to have something that represents normalcy and a semi-functioning economy — and something that would get people watching TV and tweeting about questionable officiating instead of reading 1,700 pandemic-related stories and tweets every day.
Fans would welcome that — even if they knew they were just being temporarily distracted, even if it was only on TV and even if it was all kind of strange.
The specifics of how all of this happens, however, are complicated. When powerful stakeholders get together, even in the midst of a pandemic, the devil still lurks in the details.
We’re finding that out this week as Major League Baseball takes steps forward to become the first major U.S. league to set into motion a plan to resume play.
Owners approved a proposal that they will bring to players Tuesday. Before the players even officially see that proposal, they are already setting the stage for a battle — and for good reason.
The plan from owners contains plenty of provisions that will probably survive in some shape or form when (if) these things get ironed out. But the biggest question marks are player safety and money.
The owners plan — probably best viewed as an opening to negotiations — involves a 50-50 revenue split and a truncated half-season beginning in early July. It doesn’t really mention, um, safety.
Nationals pitcher Sean Doolittle framed things nicely with a series of tweets Monday that began: “Bear with me, but it feels like we’ve zoomed past the most important aspect of any MLB restart plan: health protections for players, families, staff, stadium workers and the workforce it would require to resume a season.”
He included several links along the way to coronavirus-related health concerns, serving as a reminder that owners aren’t going to be the ones putting their health at risk. It’s the players and support staff bearing those grave considerations.
Mega-agent Scott Boras is already digging in on the financial side of things. He told Sports Illustrated he will urge players to reject the deal, saying: “The players I represent are unified in that they reached an agreement and they sacrificed anywhere from 30 to 40% of their salaries so that the games could amicably continue. The owners represented during that negotiation that they could operate without fans in the ballpark. Based on that, we reached an agreement and there will not be a renegotiation of that agreement.”
A league official told The Athletic that the 50% revenue split is fair and necessary. MLBPA executive director Tony Clark had another name for it: a salary cap, which he said is a non-starter in negotiations.
“That the league is trying to take advantage of a global health crisis to get what they’ve failed to achieve in the past — and to anonymously negotiate through the media for the last several days — suggests they know exactly how this will be received,” Clark said. “None of this is beneficial to the process of finding a way for us to safely get back on the field and resume the 2020 season — which continues to be our sole focus.”
My guess is that the question of player safety and testing will be more easily bridged than the money question — but that all of this posturing should be considered an entry point for negotiations between two sides that traditionally loathe each other and have contentious battles.
But as ESPN’s Jeff Passan notes in an excellent edition of 20 Questions, there is probably too much at stake for the sides to blow it all up and cancel the season — assuming, which is a big if, that this can all be done in a way that satisfies safety concerns.
The owners have set themselves up to make the players look bad in negotiations by coming out with the first wave of “baseball is back!” headlines, but the players have plenty of cards left to play.
Maybe the best thing to do is ignore all of this until they come to an agreement.
Then again, maybe this theater is all just part of the distraction everyone is craving.