As MLB lockout reaches crucial point, it's clear the owners were never going to lose | Opinion

·7 min read

The owners were never going to lose.

Misery Monday has arrived in Major League Baseball’s industry shutdown, a day in which the game’s overlords decreed there must be a deal struck for a new collective bargaining agreement, or else.

Or else regular season games will be canceled. Or else players – oh, those greedy players! – will miss paychecks. Or else the sport will wear yet another proverbial black eye and the cries of “Never again!” from angry fans could be heard.

But that scenario is torn from the pages of history.

Sure, fans will be mad, and some will jump ship and never return, but a vaster share will simply continue regarding baseball for what it is now – background noise through the spring and summer months, save for the rare moments when the hometown nine breaks through and makes the World Series, or a player, team or both are caught up in scandal.

And we can dispense with the notion of “winners and losers” once this thing – if this thing? – is settled. While the sides remained zip codes apart in 11th-hour negotiations, the players likely will ultimately point to nominal gains made in some areas, largely involving pay for younger players.

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Yet this lockout – imposed by MLB at midnight Dec. 1 – was never going to be an avenue for labor to gain back losses to management in previous CBA negotiations. In fact, all it did was reveal just how challenging it will be for players to pry so much as a nickel from franchise owners.

This wasn’t quite the nuclear winter we all saw coming three to five years ago, and that’s due largely to the players, relatively early on, dropping the concepts of free agency after five years of service time and salary arbitration after two. Those concessions might have resembled an olive branch. Instead, it only emboldened MLB to fortify its wall.

What we’ve seen over these 89 days was not a negotiation, but the owners deploying a four-corners offense that would have impressed Dean Smith himself.

MLB needed nothing from these negotiations and acted like it. The luxury tax ceiling? It’s pretty much fine the way it is – and how about we ramp up the penalties for offending teams, while we’re at it.

An increased arbitration-eligible class? We’d rather not. A draft lottery to deter teams from not bothering to win? We’ll think about it, but only if you’re good boys and accept a 14-team playoff!

And so Rob Manfred and Dan Halem and Dick Monfort and Ron Fowler spread the floor and tossed the ball back and forth to each other. And Tony Clark and Bruce Meyer and Max Scherzer and Marcus Semien could only scamper after them, pressure them, but could not compel them to shoot.

Chicago Cubs chairman Tom Ricketts and Colorado Rockies owner Dick Monfort take in a 2021 game at Coors Field.
Chicago Cubs chairman Tom Ricketts and Colorado Rockies owner Dick Monfort take in a 2021 game at Coors Field.

Instead, a series of unserious luxury tax proposals came forth – a bump from the already grossly outdated $210 million in 2021 to $214 million in 2022, rising to $222 million in 2026. Those also were accompanied by stiffer penalties for exceeding it – up to 95% for the third tier.

While the players’ initial ask of a $245 million ceiling seems audacious, it is an area in which they’re making up for lost time. The luxury tax ceiling has grown just 18% since 2011, from $178 million to $210 million, a period during which industry revenues grew 70%, from an estimated $6.29 billion to $10.7 billion in 2019, the last season untouched by pandemic.

Perhaps the players must live with the losses they took in the past two CBAs, but some market correction is in order. As for MLB’s proposed tax ceiling rising from just $214 million to $222 million from 2022-26, just one question: With massive national TV deals coming online, the untapped revenue stream of sports gambling and the specter of expansion, do team owners really believe their revenues will grow by less than 4% in that five-year span?

Besides, just because owners have a limit on spending does not mean they’ll be compelled to reach it.

And that brings us to our original point – even if Manfred fell under the spell of Che Guevara’s ghost and capitulated to every labor demand, how many owners would actually bother to spend upward of $245 million on payroll?

If the past seven or so years proved anything, it’s that ownership – hiding behind the “smarts” of their army of front-office analysts – has proven quite capable of price-fixing without appearing downright collusive. It is how All-Stars are frozen out of the market, veterans all receive the same one-year, $1 million tender and scores of arbitration-eligible players get tossed back into six-figure salaryland when they reach three years of service and are subsequently not offered a contract.

Even the only three franchises who combine excessive revenue with an apparent desire to win – the Red Sox, Yankees and Dodgers – play limbo with the tax threshold, ducking under it as long as possible and showing a willingness to sacrifice championships rather than exceed the ceiling for a difference-making player.

(At least the Dodgers learned their lesson, breaking a 32-year title drought the same year they traded for and guaranteed $375 million to Mookie Betts.)

So what now? Negotiations will ramp up Monday and, in a perfect world, enough progress will be made that MLB – which imposed the lockout – also won’t have to announce Opening Day cancellations. That will require both sides to again touch the third rail of luxury tax ceilings, and MLB will surely try to stand firm once common ground is found on minimum salaries and, perhaps, a new bonus pool for high-achieving young players.

Yet even the highest end of those proposals amount to nickels and dimes. On minimum salary, the sides are hardly worlds apart (MLB: $640,000, players: $775,000) and the difference would cost teams a mere $1.35 million if they had up to 10 minimum-wage earners on their team. The $20 million bonus pool proposed by MLB would, in theory, cost less than $1 million per team. It would cost each team $3.83 million under the $115 million proposed by the union – and you get the sense that number, more than any, has significant flexion from the players’ side.

Meanwhile, as owners cough up hundreds of thousands to younger players, they’d be aiming for billions more in revenue, ready to pilfer your municipality for real estate developments with a side of baseball. We already saw Manfred dump on the current Oakland Coliseum site to help nudge the A’s toward a mixed-use development – or Las Vegas – even as their own fans express satisfaction with the current location.

Get ready for Royals owner John Sherman to continue touting the import of a downtown Kansas City ballpark, even as a true gem, Kauffman Stadium, glistens from renovations and remains a fan favorite. Hey, the 2015 World Series title was nice, but a cluster of 800-square foot condos with a Starbucks in the basement would be much, much better.

See where this is going?

So get ready for more posturing this week, some furious negotiations and, perhaps, an agreement. The players will rightfully tout their gains, relieved it is over but also crestfallen that another five years will pass before any substantive change. The owners will aim to keep a straight face while lauding what they’ll call significant concessions made amid a fair deal.

And perhaps a 162-game season will be salvaged, before MLB loses any other shares of the attention economy following a winter in which arguably its most popular venture – trades and free agency – was doused.

It all starts back up Monday morning. And once again, MLB can simply hold the ball in the corner, knowing the clock will eventually run out.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: MLB team owners were always going to win labor battle in MLB lockout