Negotiations between MLB and the MLB Players Association have barely even begun, but one side is already behind. The court of public opinion remains in session, ever ready to deliver its verdict.
Before free agency and the normal business of the off-season commences following the World Series, MLB and the MLB Players Association (MLBPA) need to hammer out a new Basic Agreement that will dictate the compensation and working conditions for players over the life of the deal, which is usually five years, as well as the financial structure of the league.
It’s the process by which the players gradually built power from the mid-1960s to the mid-1990s, increasing salaries exponentially and winning the rights to arbitration and free agency. It’s also the process by which the owners have taken back power over the last quarter-century, drastically increasing their own profits while hammering away at players’ share of league-wide revenue.
To say the two sides have frosty relations at the moment would be a gross understatement. Many people close to MLB assume we will have the league’s first work stoppage since 1994-1995. The crux of the matter is money, of course.
From 2001-2019, MLB’s annual revenues nearly tripled from $3.6 billion to $10.4 billion. This might not even take into account much of the new revenue sources that owners hide from players with creative accounting, such as their gambling partnership with MGM, cryptocurrency agreement with FTX, or their one-time $1.5 billion sale of the majority stake in BAMtech in 2018 that surely still pays large investment dividends for owners. Correspondingly, estimated franchise values climbed even higher than reported annual revenue since 2001, with the average jumping from $286 million to $1.9 billion.
Clearly there’s plenty of cash to go around, but players’ salaries haven’t kept pace. In the time that revenue tripled and franchise values septupled, player salaries haven’t even doubled. In fact, since they signed the last Basic Agreement in 2016, salaries have more or less stagnated as owners raked in the cash.
That had a tangible negative impact on fan experience, with iconic (read: astronomically-wealthy) franchises like the Chicago Cubs selling off and plunging into a rebuild (read: money grab) instead of retaining their core and contending for the playoffs each year.
The math favors the players’ case, so there is little doubt that any disruptions to the 2022 season will be due to the unquenchable greed of ownership. The problem is that the media and fan narratives don’t reflect this at all. USA Today recently ran an opinion piece grouping MLB teams into “haves and have-nots.” A veteran sportswriter tweeted out Padres’ talking points that they “never make money,” when even a cursory look at the numbers shows that is wildly false.
The narrative of player greed will inevitably permeate media spaces more and more as we approach the off-season. Ill-informed hot-take artists love blaming labor disputes on player greed. Even the common “millionaires vs. billionaires” retort is disingenuous; less than a third of MLBPA members make $1 million whereas 29 clubs are valued at more than $1 billion (even the Miami Marlins are worth $990 million— not exactly five-and-dime).
The facts are on the players’ side, but the narrative is not. Public opinion can lead to real pressure straining the negotiations— especially when they contact their Congressional representatives— unduly forcing players to capitulate.
The MLBPA needs to initiate a public relations campaign to inform fans and media of the facts and sway public opinion to their side. That is a common organizing tool used by labor unions across the world. After all, when ownership is the only side putting out their position to the public— either directly or indirectly through the media— the public only views a slanted, one-sided portrayal of reality.
A public relations initiative in advance of negotiations should be especially easy for the MLBPA. Other labor unions don’t have public faces with celebrity status. In the ongoing Nabisco factory workers strike, nobody knows the names of the workers (whereas everyone is familiar with Oreos). When Frito-Lay workers went on strike last month, none of them had a massive social media following or 24/7 access to reporters hungry for exclusive interviews.
The celebrity nature of MLB players allows them to push their message much more easily. For example, they could have Max Scherzer, a member of the MLBPA Executive Subcommittee, record a 10-second video detailing some of the basic facts of the financial disparities between players and owners, then post that on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and TikTok. It would have millions of impressions within the hour. If Gerrit Cole, another member of MLBPA leadership, wanted to do an exclusive interview with a major media publication about the state of labor in the league, it would win the day’s headlines. No Nabisco employee can play that card.
Instead, there’s been crickets from the MLBPA leading into critical negotiations. Under the leadership of Executive Director Tony Clark, they’ve neglected to pre-negotiate through public messaging, and in failing to do so, have ceded that battlefield to Rob Manfred and the owners.
It’s a tactical misfire and an enormous missed opportunity as they attempt to improve upon their worst Basic Agreement in decades. It’s still early, but they’ve made the negotiating equivalent of surrendering a three-run home run in the first inning.
Daniel R. Epstein writes for Baseball Prospectus, Off the Bench Baseball, and Bronx Pinstripes. He is Co-Director of the Internet Baseball Writers Association of America. He is also an elementary special education teacher and President of the Somerset County Education Association.
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