An announcement from Major League Baseball that spring training will have to be delayed could come at any moment. That would be a big loss for baseball fans, seasonal workforces, and the local economies in Florida and Arizona.
To the owners and players, however, it’s not that big a deal. Players don’t get paid during spring training, and the owners hardly rely on those revenues.
Which means the needle on the owner-imposed lockout and the standoff in negotiations with the players will not move just because the Cactus and Grapefruit League seasons get shortened from six weeks to around four.
The fans will squawk, of course, but the complaints won’t register in any meaningful way with the sides so far apart and the threat of real dollars being lost still so far away.
“Compared to regular-season revenues, it’s barely a hash line,” said David Samson, who was president of the Marlins for 16 years, up until 2017, and hosts the “Nothing Personal with David Samson” podcast. “Losing that revenue is something that owners might say, ‘That’s a tipping point’ or ‘We don’t want to do that,’ but that’s not really accurate.
“You’re not going to prematurely sign a labor deal, or give up on major points related to service time or free agency or arbitration, just so you can have spring training revenue.”
The owners will gather in Orlando for their quarterly meetings Tuesday and consider their next steps after the players rejected a call for federal mediation last week.
An offer to both sides from former Boston mayor and current US Labor Secretary Martin Walsh to assist with reaching a settlement was revealed Monday, but there is still no word on when negotiations will resume. Both MLB and the Players Association declined to comment on Walsh’s offer.
The amount of money teams net from spring training ranges from zero to $10 million, according to Samson and another former major league executive. The bulk of the revenue goes into the local municipalities in the form of spending and tax upticks. Most clubs don’t derive significant dollars from spring-specific sponsorship and media deals, either.
“It was a small impact, but not likely enough to pay for a decent reliever’s pro-rata contract at the trading deadline,” wrote the ex-executive in an email.
Since there seems to be a general consensus that at least a week will be needed from settlement to when spring training begins in order for a host of issues to be resolved (such as filling out rosters), and that players need four weeks of spring training to be game-ready, that makes striking a deal by Feb. 24-28 essential for an on-time start to the regular season March 31.
And while a few games shaved off the front end could be made up with doubleheaders or a slight extension of the season, the deeper the calendar gets cut, the more the financial losses start to mount for each side.
The players, who lost 67 percent of their salaries in the 60-game COVID-shortened 2020 season, have braced themselves for having no paychecks in part by creating a cushion with licensing and royalty dollars the union has withheld for several years.
The owners lost an estimated $3 billion in revenues — or $100 million per team — in 2020. They (and the players) also have not forgotten that the short season still ended with a full postseason slate that included an expanded format and the ensuing formidable national TV revenue.
The fact that game attendance is at its lowest in April, on average, is not lost on some owners, as is the awareness of considerable savings from not paying players. That the billionaire owners would win a hold-your-breath contest with the millionaire players is not in doubt.
In reality, though, the players’ resolve on this point has yet to be tested in negotiations. That unity is factored into each side’s calculus for when real compromise will be reached.
Fan backlash from missed games will be heard, but probably not listened to that closely.
“The owners realize that while they may have to compromise a little more than they did last time, there’s still no motivation to just lay down in order to play games,” said Samson, “because the owners never believe the narrative that the media puts out that if you miss games, the game is dead, the game will die, that’ll be the end of baseball. There are no owners who believe that’s actually true.
“As angry as your fans can be because your team stinks, or because you have labor disagreements, all it takes is a competitive September and a playoff run and those fans are right back.”
That lack of pain right now helps feed the perception that a shortened season is not a question of if, but of by how much.
“You don’t get a deal done until your fingernails are hanging off the ledge of an abyss,” said Samson. “Forget fingernails, they’re not even holding on by their hands. They’re not even on their knees yet. They’re not at the abyss.”
Michael Silverman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.