Owners, players face difficult talks on starting MLB season

The owners say having no fans at games drastically affects the game’s economics.

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MLB commissioner Rob Manfred and the owners hope to start the season in July.

MLB commissioner Rob Manfred and the owners hope to start the season in July.

John Raoux/AP

Major League Baseball, scorned by players and agents at the concept of a revenue-sharing plan, maintained Thursday it is not reneging on its original agreement, and is only exercising its rights to negotiate a new economic deal with the union if a season is played without fans.

“The whole agreement is premised on that the season was only going to resume in front of fans,’’ an MLB attorney directly involved with the negotiations told USA TODAY Sports on the condition of anonymity because the attorney was not authorized to talk publicly. “The way it was structured, the season was not starting unless we can play with fans at either home ballparks or neutral sites. That was understood.

“We knew going in that it was not economically feasible to play without fans with the way the deal was structured. We bargained for the right to not start the season if we could not play in front of fans.’’

The agreement, of which a copy was provided to USA TODAY Sports, lists three provisions in order to play this year:

1. There are no federal, state, city, or local restrictions on mass gatherings or other restrictions that would materially limit the Clubs’ ability to play games in front of spectators, with regular fan access, in each of the 30 Clubs’ home ballparks; provided, however, that the Commissioner will consider the use of appropriate substitute neutral sites where economically feasible.

2. There shall be no relevant restrictions on traveling throughout the United States and Canada.

3. The Commissioner determines, after consultation with recognized medical experts and the Players Association, that it does not pose an unreasonable health and safety risk to players, staff, or spectators to stage games in front of fans in each of the 30 Clubs’ home ballparks; provided that, the Office of the Commissioner and Players Association will discuss in good faith the economic feasibility of playing games in the absence of spectators or at appropriate substitute neutral sites.

The first two provisions almost certainly won’t be met. There has been no indication that any city, county or state will permit fans to attend games, at least at the outset of the season, which MLB hopes to start in early July. And travelers currently are required to be quarantined 14 days when arriving in Canada.

MLB owners, saying they could lose as much as $150 million per club during the regular season if players don’t restructure their salaries, agreed Monday to propose a 50-50 revenue sharing plan instead of paying them pro-rated salaries. Their greatest fear is starting the regular season and then having to cancel the postseason because of a second wave of COVID-19.

TV rights to the postseason are worth $750 million, and that could go up to $1 billion with an additional round added to an expanded format.

Players such as Tampa Bay Rays Cy Young winner Blake Snell denounced the idea, saying he’d prefer to not play than accept another potential salary cut. Union chief Tony Clark said last month that “negotiations are over.’’

The union asserts that no provision in the agreement reached March 26 discusses the possibility of restructuring salaries in Section 4 listed under player compensation and benefits:

“If and when the conditions exist for the commencement of the 2020 championship season, all players signed to a Major League UPC shall be paid … absent a subsequent interruption or delay of the championship season caused by or related to Coronavirus.”

The union says the agreement makes it clear that when games are played, players will be paid prorated salaries costing them about $2 billion, without distinguishing between games with or without fans.

The owners argue that they will actually lose more money by playing regular-season games than if there’s no season at all, if the postseason is canceled.

The union strongly disagrees, taking the position that the side agreed to play as many games as possible so long as they are economically feasible, and that playing games, even without fans, is economically better than playing no games.

Meanwhile, MLB attorneys have yet to officially propose a revenue-sharing plan with the union. They began discussing safety and health protocols Tuesday and plan to pour over an 80- to 100-page document. The two sides are expected to start talking about economic issues next week, which could be a non-starter for the union.

“For the life of me,’’ the MLB attorney said, “I don’t understand the argument that the issue of pay is settled. They recognized it would have to be under discussion if we couldn’t play in front of fans. This is not a situation we missed something, or the language was interpreting something different.

“Look, at this time in crisis, we should get together in good faith and become partners. It is highly counter-productive for the players to have an inaccurate understanding on the agreement that we struck in March. We are willing to do what the agreement says, and that’s to have discussions in good faith.

“It’s time to get together and do a good thing for our country, and get people back to baseball.’’

Read more at usatoday.com

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