By Daniel Multz
Boston University News Service
When the clock struck midnight on Dec. 2, Major League Baseball’s collective bargaining agreement expired without a new deal ready to take effect. For the first time since 1994, Major League Baseball is in a lockout.
According to league regulations, without a CBA, “teams are not permitted to sign free agents, offer contract extensions and renegotiations, waive/option/release players, or conduct trades.” Many teams spent big on free agents before the lockout, which led to a higher level of spending, and more active offseason, to this point than in recent years.
“There was clearly a rush to get a bunch of things done before a lockout loomed,” said Victor Matheson, a professor of economics at the College of the Holy Cross. “[MLB has] lots of revenue to spend on players, and I think [we] saw a bunch of teams try to make sure they got in their contracts before everything gets shut down.”
Matheson also said that the lockout has put the league in an even unhealthier state. Between attendance numbers dropping and star players remaining unsigned and angry with owners, a lockout could cause additional negative press that the league cannot afford to take.
Despite the large sums of money spent by teams this past month, Professor Rodney Paul of Syracuse University argued the COVID-19 pandemic caused a net loss for the league and escalated the tension between the owners and the players.
“Both sides lost a lot of money in terms of the pandemic,” Paul said. “Are both sides really going to be able to play chicken to the point where [they] are not going to go ahead and be able to have a season [in 2021], or have a shortened season and everybody risks losing out on that money that’s out there?”
The pandemic also led to long negotiations over what the 2020 season would look like. Both sides disagreed over how much to pay the players, and how long the season should be, which led to 2020 not kicking off until August.
“We were in a pandemic and there was so much unknown given players’ health and players putting their bodies on the line out there having to play a baseball game while people are literally dying,” said Boston Globe Red Sox reporter Julian McWilliams. “You obviously saw that the fact that they couldn’t come to some sort of agreement showed [the disagreements], and the level of vitriol, between the two sides.”
An additional source of animosity between the players and owners is competition. Players want to play for competitive teams while not every owner opens up their wallets to the same degree.
“Bigger market teams, particularly like the [New York] Yankees and in general, have figured out that “perhaps we don’t have to win the World Series. But if we can just keep this team competitive every year, that in turn keeps the fanbase competitive,” McWilliams said.
“I think if you look around the league, there’s only four or five teams across the entire league that are really in the business of winning,” he added.
The lack of a minimum payroll requirement may also allow owners to do the bare minimum for their teams, which affects the players individually and the product put out.
“Because there is no salary floor of any type [in MLB], what we have seen is a collapse of payrolls in a reasonably large handful of markets,” Matheson said. “And as revenues rise across the league, the players don’t seem to be capturing the same sort of percentage of those rising league revenues.”
Players also want to make more money sooner, when they are at peak talent levels, rather than waiting nearly a decade for a chance to make what they want.
“Now [the players] realize that during the prime years, the current state of the CBA sets that they are likely to be underpaid compared to their performance during that time frame,” Paul said. “[Players] need to find a way to extract what [their] value is at that particular time, and the owners probably realize that too. It’s just the nature of the system.”
An additional ramification of the lockout, and therefore an added risk posed to the money the players and the league can make, is the 2022 regular season starting late as it did after the last lockout in 1994-95.
“Each side of the [issue] knows what they are willing to be able to do … Maybe losing some games is not that big of a deal, but it’s a matter of losing many games for the season, especially after what everybody’s just gone through,” Paul said.
When a new CBA gets ratified and the lockout ends, the offseason can resume and players can once again be signed, moved or traded.
“You’re not going to see any players saying ‘I’m still mad about how this turned out. I’m not going to take my $4 million this year,’” Matheson said. “You don’t see any of that, or the teams saying ‘Well, we lost these negotiations, [so we’re] just not going to hire any free agents this year.’ People don’t really take their ball and go home when things don’t go their way in the end in labor negotiations.”