Offseason MLB lockout points to in-season disruption

With pitchers and catchers set to report to spring training in a matter of weeks, the ongoing labor dispute between the players and owners is increasingly placing the Major League Baseball (MLB) season in jeopardy. The snail’s pace of progress in talks and the recent history of lockouts in the National Basketball Association (NBA), National Football League (NFL) and National Hockey League (NHL) suggest fans should anticipate a delay to the upcoming MLB season.

In sports, animosity can serve as an obstacle to the players and owners acknowledging mutual dependency and resolving a labor dispute, but in truth neither side inherently holds more leverage. However, the first side to trigger a work stoppage instantly gains a strategic advantage. Owners have lately shown an escalated willingness to push that advantage at all costs, including missed games.

Notably, according to the LA Times, former Commissioner David Stern initiated the 2011 NBA lockout on July 1, about three-and-a-half months before the season was set to begin. The MLB lockout began on Dec. 2 with the season set to start March 31, putting the two lockouts on approximately the same timeline. The NBA lockout resulted in a season that was 20 percent shorter than usual. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics described the most recent lockout in major American sports, prior to the 2012-2013 NHL season, which resulted in a 41.5 percent reduction in schedule-length.

The NHL lockout was not only the most recent lockout in major American sports but also the most recent work stoppage. In fact, the other type of work stoppage, the player-initiated strike, hasn’t occurred since the infamous strike that took chunks out of the 1994 and 1995 baseball seasons. In a Dec. 2 press release addressed to baseball fans, Commissioner Rob Manfred justified implementing a work stoppage by stating, “[W]e believe that an offseason lockout is the best mechanism to protect the 2022 season.” But, rather than trying to minimize the loss of regular season games, baseball’s lockout just seems to reflect a general, inter-sport trend. The latest round of negotiations seemed to confirm this, as Deputy Commissioner Dan Halem expressed the league’s willingness to cancel games during a Jan. 24 bargaining session, according to multiple sources including The Athletic’s Evan Drellich.

To understand the disappearance of strikes, we have to go back to the 1950s, when professional-athlete unions began mustering the power needed to strike in the first place. The first union to do so was the NFL Players Association (NFLPA). According to the NFLPA’s website, in 1957’s Radovich v. National Football League ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court ordered the NFL to recognize the NFLPA and give in to many of their demands. 11 years later, they declared themselves a union and were the first such union to vote to strike. The NHL also saw the formation of their own Players Association in 1957 and the NBA in 1954.

MLB, older than any other major American sports league, saw four unionization attempts among their players from 1885 through 1946. However, it wasn’t until 1965, when the players recruited Economist Marvin Miller, that the MLB Players Association (MLBPA) really started to take shape. As a result, in 1968, they struck up the first ever collective bargaining agreement in professional sports.

Collective bargaining is the process of negotiation between a union and their employers. It is named for the combined action many workers in a union take. Since 1968, MLB players and owners have met every few years to renew their collective bargaining agreement. Each time that these discussions have met an impasse, there has been a work stoppage—five strikes and three lockouts before this one, to be exact. While it is worth noting that none of the lockouts resulted in missed games and three of the strikes did, there is ample reason to believe that this time will be different.

Of the three MLBPA strikes, the last one, which started in 1994, was the most significant, leading to the only ever cancellation of the World Series. Since that devastating stoppage, professional sports leagues have turned to lockouts more frequently, attempting to preempt player-initiated stoppages at even the hint of a strike, perhaps when there wouldn’t have been a strike at all. Unlike the earlier MLB lockouts, these new-age ones (i.e., the 2011 NBA and 2012 NHL lockouts) have led to missed games. However, they have succeeded in that there hasn’t been a strike since the MLBPA’s from 1994 to 1995. Plus, according to a 2013 report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, players have seen their share of league-generated revenue decline sharply, indicative of the power lockouts provide leagues.

The leagues have been able to preempt strikes because historically, strikes have occurred midway through the season. Unions have more leverage once the season is already underway because they will have received at least some of their pay. In addition, a mid-season stoppage puts the playoffs in jeopardy, as the 1994 strike did. This gives the union more leverage because the league stands to profit the most from the playoffs, for which not all players are paid (since most teams do not compete). So, all the league needs to do to prevent the union from gaining this leverage is lock them out before the season begins—before the players receive a single paycheck.

Lockouts have seemingly devolved into a negotiation tactic. If they have been more fan-friendly in the sense that they have sometimes cancelled fewer games—and recent lockouts haven’t—it may have been coincidental. The league would likely lock players out midseason if they held more leverage in doing so. Yet, this isn’t to say the players are innocent; they still chose to stop the season midway three times.

Regardless, Sports Illustrated reports that the pressure that the lockout brought on has already urged the MLBPA to give up a key proposal of theirs: shortening the time to free agency. But the two sides have yet to iron out a deal. If negotiations falter and MLB makes a calculation that delaying the season will nudge the players even closer to their side, expect plenty of missed games. While precedent shows that players are typically willing to make major concessions before the lockout reaches the season’s halfway mark, haggling over COVID-19 safety measures caused a prolonged delay for the 2020 MLB season. The heightened animosity during that dispute foreshadowed the frustrations hanging over the current one, but the three-month headstart in the bargaining timeline for this year portends a much-sooner return-to-play than 2020’s July 23 start.

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