Major League Baseball’s Looming Labor Crisis

Nathan Tucker
ntucker@lc.edu


In a normal baseball offseason, the biggest talk in the last week of January is usually the anticipation of pitchers and catchers reporting to spring training. This is not a normal baseball offseason, and while there’s still great excitement for the upcoming season, the biggest stories in the sport are Bryce Harper and Manny Machado, two of the biggest stars in baseball who remain unsigned by any major league team, less than three weeks away from the start of spring training.

The Winter Meetings in December, where team representatives met to discuss business would have been many people’s guess for when Harper and Machado would have found a deal suitable to their value. That week of meetings came and went, and neither of the stars signed with a team.

Many players started taking deals at lower rates and shorter terms, as the offers from teams haven’t been nearly as exuberant or as long as they’ve been in the past.

It’s clear that the days of long-term contracts with large amounts of guaranteed money- for example, when Albert Pujols left St. Louis for Anaheim- are long behind us. Owners and teams are being more frugal with the money they have.

Players are feeling an immediate impact by which teams are willing to sign, and how much money those teams are even willing to part with.

Many teams in baseball (and sports on a wider scale) have realized that they can still make money without winning, or even competing, and the phenomena known as “tanking” is now commonplace at the highest levels. Teams have realized that the amount of people attending the game is only good advertising, and it isn’t really necessary to be good to make money, as most of the money in professional sports at the current time comes from extremely lucrative broadcasting rights deals.

For a local example, the Cardinals current television rights deal with Fox Sports Midwest ensures they make a billion dollars over the next fifteen years.

In 2018 the Save America’s Pastime Act was passed by Congress, part of which further exempts minor league baseball players from federal and state minimum wage protection laws, or in simpler words, makes it so teams can pay players under minimum wage.

Minor leaguers, especially those further separated from the major leagues, have never made much money at all, and this act threatens to put further strain on those players as its effects will likely be seen in the coming season.

Someone unfamiliar with the current baseball landscape I’ve covered might infer that baseball is struggling. Or that the MLB is struggling monetarily because teams want to pay free agents less and the league lobbied Congress to pass a bill that so they could pay all minor leaguers more than minimum wage.

That would be a flawed view of the situation. In 2018, Major League Baseball profited $10.3 billion dollars, a record revenue, in a year that was “stagnant for growth”. Fear not, however, as several league-wide broadcasting deals worth billions will make sure that the league makes more money than ever and will continue to make more money than ever.

What is happening here isn’t a singular offseason aberration. Around 150 free agents in baseball have yet to be signed, and as of this writing, half of MLB teams have yet to offer a free agent a contract over one year in length.

Speaking to DC sports station 106.7 The Fan, Nationals closer Sean Doolittle voiced his problems with the current landscape: “I think it’s scary, man, I definitely think it’s something that we’ve obviously been keeping a close eye on over the last few years”

Players have been worrying about these changes far longer than any reporter or columnist or fan. Locker rooms around baseball haven’t been blindsided by this, they know the deal, and they’re not happy.

It’s becoming clear that if MLB doesn’t reverse course, a work stoppage is imminent, as the players creating those record revenues grow frustrated that they are seeing less and less money as the league grows in value.

To many, it might seem silly for millionaire players to complain while still making millions. That attitude simply gives a pass to billionaire team owners, who line their pockets with growing revenues while paying players less. The billionaires here are the only ones with the power to stop this growing labor crisis. But will they?

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