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Madkour: Key takeaways from the MLB lockout

I was happy to be wrong about MLB’s negotiations on a new collective-bargaining agreement. I believed it would result in missed regular-season games, and I commend management and labor for reaching a deal to avoid that. In January, I wrote that talks would come down to how far the players would push, the levels of the competitive balance tax, younger players making more money earlier in their career and owners wanting an expanded playoffs. I received pointed feedback from management and labor sources who felt I lacked a full understanding of the negotiations — feedback I considered fair and took to heart. But I’ll stand by my original premise because the new CBA was based around these fundamentals, and in the end, both sides got to a deal they could live with without threatening the regular season. If you work in the business, you understand how difficult these negotiations are and how destructive they can be. Both sides feared the fallout of losing regular-season games and compromised, which shouldn’t be overlooked.

From the start, the players had ambitious goals in changing the business parameters, but understood they were not going to achieve them all. My sense is that in early March, the majority of players felt the proposal in front of them was good enough and it wasn’t worth missing games. Management felt the same way, despite the belief they were comfortable holding out for a more friendly deal. In the end, both sides moved. We knew negotiations on the CBT would be very difficult, and they were. It was surprising and good to see how much ownership moved on that, making significant increases in the tax threshold without adding significant penalties for teams exceeding the tax. There was also an increase in the player minimum from $570,500 to $700,000, and the $50 million pre-arbitration pool is an entirely new benefit to players. The players moved too, and it was their proposal around the international draft that surprised management and led to the final deal. So, as deadlines neared, both sides budged, and the union clearly made gains as the economics moved in their direction.

Of course, some players and owners wanted to continue to negotiate. Sources on both sides assured me that if a deal didn’t get done on March 10, there was no guarantee the terms would have gotten any better. I heard the same refrain from both sides of the talks: “We felt this was the best we could do under the circumstances.” It wasn’t perfect, but that’s the outcome of tough negotiations.

Other thoughts from the 99-day lockout: 

 The media narrative toward the end of the negotiations was that the sides would reach an economic deal but ignore much-needed changes to the game. But there will be significant changes to the rules process, with more player involvement and input and the ability to make rule changes more quickly. … Many aren’t fans of the 12-team expanded playoffs, but it will offer postseason baseball to two more fan bases and should mean more meaningful games in September. … There are regular-season games in more international markets, including Mexico City, London and Paris, and less divisional play. These are just some of the changes and we will see how they are received.   

 The players’ use of social media will be a case study for the future. Players very successfully spoke directly to fans to characterize the tone, tenor and style of the negotiations. They were clearly on the offensive in winning public support and ownership never made a case for what they were fighting for.

 I don’t think the “relationship” between players and management, especially Rob Manfred, is going to dramatically improve just because they reached a CBA. There are still tensions and bad feelings; there always are in CBA negotiations, it’s not exclusive to Major League Baseball. You saw everyone’s relief once the deal was done — especially Manfred, because if the league’s longtime labor lawyer couldn’t reach a CBA as commissioner, you’d understand if owners would question the league’s direction. There will and should be continued focus on Manfred and his comportment with players. To his credit, he acknowledged that he wants to and must work to improve the relationship, and many players promised to do their part. Let’s take them at their word and watch their future actions, because I have to believe both sides want to seriously dial down the tension, move toward an era of collaboration and change the perception from adversarial to one of partnership. They have the promise of five years of labor peace to collectively illustrate the value both groups bring to baseball. Will that happen? I don’t know. I know the fans will come back. I also know the leaders of the sport can focus on growing the sport, improving the game and focusing on the fan. That’s a much better and more enjoyable place to be, and that’s what we should judge them on.

 

Abraham Madkour can be reached at amadkour@sportsbusinessjournal.com.

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