But Saturday, less than a year later, before most teams had even played their first spring training games, MLBPA Executive Director Tony Clark sat in the union’s Scottsdale, Ariz., headquarters, surrounded by reporters, and made his side’s case for the next battle.
“We’re never going to agree to a [salary] cap,” Clark stated unequivocally, reinforcing a position the union has held for generations and fending off the notion four years before he and his staff will have to rebuff any attempts by owners to implement one. From Clark’s perspective, he was just returning fire.
Owners such as Pittsburgh’s Bob Nutting, Cincinnati’s Phil Castellini and Colorado’s Dick Monfort have voiced concerns about the difficulty of competing with free-spending teams in other markets. Castellini said this year that the Reds run like a “nonprofit,” the latest in a series of complaints he has levied suggesting his team could not compete with bigger teams even if it tried. MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred recently called those comments “unhelpful,” but he also acknowledged that the owners formed an economic reform committee to explore solutions to payroll disparities and oversee MLB’s transition to the cord-cutting era. MLB said that committee first met in June, when the owners realized just how fragile the regional sports network model was becoming, not in response to some teams spending far more than others this offseason.
“I think that most people who pay attention to our game realize that we do have a disparity issue here, both on the revenue side and consequently on the ability to spend on players,” Manfred said last week, even as the small-market San Diego Padres will enter this season with the third-highest payroll in the majors, becoming the rare franchise to go from receiving revenue-sharing money from bigger-market teams to sharing funds with teams in cities even smaller than theirs.
Clark said he believes history shows the formation of such a committee, which he compared with the blue ribbon committee formed in the years before the 1994 strike, is indicative of a new push to implement a salary cap.
“We’ve got four years before we sit down and negotiate again, and a salary cap is not a new idea,” Clark said Saturday. “What is interesting is the comments coming a year into a new agreement. What is interesting is the comments finding their way into the headlines against the backdrop of a remarkably exciting offseason.”
From MLB’s perspective, what was interesting about Clark’s comments was that they came on the day spring training began for all 30 teams, the day MLB officials were spread out among spring training stadiums eagerly observing the arrival of the pitch clock and other new rules they hope will modernize the game for a more frenetic era. MLB hopes those rules will help expand the game’s reach and expand revenue with it. Clark’s thoughts stole headlines from that rollout, too.
MLB made its position on payroll disparity clear during months of negotiations last offseason: Owners are not under obligation to run their teams at a loss to compete or to spend a certain amount to do so, and they do not have bottomless pockets from which to draw. They are facing uncertainty over television revenue. The pandemic set them back. What do the players want — everything they make? Plus, just because revenue increases doesn’t mean profit does. That the Padres will transform from a revenue-sharing recipient to a revenue-sharing payer this year is remarkable. But revenue, MLB would argue, is not the same as profit. Whether the Padres make money on the whole this year, given the size of their investments, remains to be seen.
But the union’s perspective, one Clark outlined again Saturday, is that revenue has jumped dramatically over the past decade, that billionaires owning baseball teams can spend more than they do, that putting the best product on the field will offer increased revenue to match (again, see Padres, San Diego). In other words, the players do not want everything; they want a greater share of the revenue than they get. These are billionaires who will not open the books, making it hard for players to believe all are doing their best to win within their financial means.
“The question that should be asked in regards to one team’s payroll versus another is whether or not that team is making a conscious decision to have its payroll there or whether it has the ability to increase its payroll,” Clark said. “The answer is the latter, not the former.”
MLB and the union have disagreed on that question — whether owners could spend enough to compete and don’t or can’t and therefore need to limit their less frugal peers instead — for years. The strike that canceled the 1994 World Series was, in part, a fight over a salary cap. The sides spent most of last offseason hashing out the details of an agreement that included higher luxury tax penalties on free-spending teams, penalties the union worried would act as a cap and suppress salaries. But those taxes haven’t stopped Steve Cohen’s New York Mets and other teams from spending — and earning their peers’ ire as a result.
“The conversation around economic reform has one goal,” Clark asserted Saturday. “How best to suppress player salaries.”
That conversation is not new. That conversation is not even immediately pressing for MLB or its union, both of which are engaged in their first negotiations over a minor league CBA, one they hope to have in place by Opening Day.
But that conversation is all-consuming — always has been and will continue to be. Four years before the CBA expires, the fight over the next one is underway.