Earlier this week, MLB owners presented their opening offer for a 2020 baseball season to their counterparts in the players’ union.
Their proposed plan to start the season in July includes half the amount of games, a redesigned divisional schedule to make it easier on players and staff, as well as a number of other logistical adjustments.
However, the central offer from ownership is a 50-50 revenue split with players, which the owners believe is reasonable based on the fact that the ticket and stadium-driven revenue from which they rely will be little to non-existent whether a season happens or not. Seems reasonable enough, right?
In his highly detailed account of the opening round of negotiations, ESPN’s Jeff Passan explains that unfortunately, the 50-50 split is likely to be a complete “non-starter” with the players’ union for a variety of challenging reasons.
First, the players feel that agreeing to split revenues in this way would resemble a salary cap, something they have strenuously avoided in the past. Second, and potentially harmful, is that the players believe both parties have already agreed to a simple pro-rated version of their salaries when they last negotiated in March. (Conversely, the owners believe the agreement was much more flexible and designed for further consideration. According to Passan, outside lawyers themselves disagree due to ambiguous wording.)
One thing that both sides appear to agree on is that if a season is to occur this year then negotiations must be completed by the beginning of June, at the latest, so that a condensed spring training can enable teams to work towards getting their players ready for July.
So as the sports-world’s greatest hope begins a two-week game of chicken, with billions of dollars to lose and the hearts of millions of fans on the line, both parties will have to address an important and challenging question – one that is being negotiated not only in professional sports but in every private industry and level of government due to the pandemic: What is fairness?
If we decide to avoid the philosophical rabbit-hole and stick to negotiation theory, we can find some solid ground. According to social psychologists, there are three types of fairness principles from which negotiators will attempt to claim value. They are: equality, equity, and need.
Equality means that parties should share any rewards, profits, or sacrifices equally, an argument the owners are looking to leverage by anchoring their opening offer with a 50-50 split.
Equity means that rewards or profits should be allocated based on who is contributing the most to the pie. For example, players are looking to frame the negotiation based on the fact that the game cannot be played without them, they are ones putting themselves at risk by gathering, and the ones who will have to live with various inconveniences such as restricted travel to see families.
Need states that the pie should be divided according to whoever most requires such resources or profits. And while this argument might not carry much weight in business normally, the pandemic has blurred many distinctions. For example, some have already pointed out that the billionaire team owners will be incredibly wealthy with or without a season, whereas the majority of the players and staff might depend on this year’s income to support their lifestyles.
It will be fascinating to see how these differing versions of fairness evolve, how the parties will leverage them to frame their arguments, and most importantly, if some mixture of agreement can be found in time to save a sports season.
As a lifelong fan, I’m selfishly hoping that both parties can find their fairness balance.
For I, like Kevin James, miss baseball very much.