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Unified Front? Rifts Between Owners Likely Part of Stagnating MLB CBA Talks

In a multi-billion dollar labor dispute between owners and players, there is a battle that is being waged beneath the surface that could be a major sticking point in negotiations.

MLB Lockout CBA Discussions Owners Players
Photo: USA Today Sports

Reality is beginning to set in that there is diminishing hope of the 2022 MLB season starting on March 31 as originally intended. With each “meeting”, if we can even call them that at this point, very little seems to be getting accomplished. 15 minutes to an hour goes by with little to no movement and no timetable for follow-up discussions. As fans, we were supposed to be seeing images of pitchers throwing balls in Arizona and Florida this week, and it feels like we are still weeks away from that taking place.

The conventional battle lines that have been drawn in the media and on social media platforms follow a simplistic narrative: owners vs. players. But what if there is another subtle battle taking place beneath the surface that may be holding things up more than fans of the sport realize? After Thursday’s deflating meeting that lasted less time than the final 90 seconds of an NBA game, ESPN’s lead baseball writer, Jeff Passan, took to Twitter to do an “Ask Me Anything” to help guide fans through the current state of labor discourse. One particular interaction caught my eye:

Passan acknowledged a little-reported fact that at the end of the day, Rob Manfred is a stooge for the owners but he has to have 23 “yays” in order to consummate a new deal. The battles between these 30 owners can be just as cantankerous as those between owners and players. Most fans don’t want to hear this, but there are certainly class divisions between the owners largely dependent on their market size. These factors have driven things in previous CBAs, such as the advent of revenue sharing.

Class Warfare

Let me be crystal clear about something. I feel no pity for anyone that owns a professional sports franchise. Despite narratives to the contrary from Manfred and others, they are tremendous investment opportunities, and that’s really what they are largely viewed as today. There is not a single ownership group that exists in the sport today that was there at the dawn of their franchise. This isn’t like the NFL where ownerships have been passed down from generation to generation, like some subpar team in Illinois that so many of you are fond of for reasons I will never understand.

MLB’s current ownership ranks are comprised of titans of industry and ultra-wealthy individuals who view baseball teams as their personal toys. But there is a tremendous amount of envy that exists among these ranks as well. Bob Nuttig in Pittsburgh, who has the best ballpark in America, continues to cry poor and did so last decade despite having a homegrown team that could’ve been a consistent contender had he actually opened his wallet. Stu Sternberg in Tampa is continually trying to use Tampa and Montreal as leverage to get a new stadium, saying without one he can’t field a truly competitive team.

These are just a few examples, but the fact is they are not the only owners that play this game. For as much flack as I give Jerry Reinsdorf, and deservedly so, owners in the aforementioned cities along with places like Cleveland (which deserves it), Cincinnati, Milwaukee, Oakland, and others cry poor even to levels that would make Jerry blush.

But at the end of the day, Jerry is in a major market despite not acting as such. He, along with his cohorts in places like New York, Los Angeles, Boston, Philadelphia, and Texas, turn their noses up at the small-market owners. You know what else the major market owners do? They subsidize the existence of these small-market owners through revenue sharing. Initially, that was one discussion point in these CBA talks, and the idea that revenue sharing would be reduced or eliminated. That immediately set off the alarms for small-market owners who had a realization that their corporate welfare could be at risk.

Major-market owners hate subsidizing small-market teams, because let’s be honest, the small-market owners don’t reinvest into their teams. They are using the revenue-sharing dollars to line their pockets or to pay down their acquisition costs after MLB lightened its debt rules to purchase clubs in the last two decades. Jerry Reinsdorf and John Henry don’t want to give money to Larry Dolan in Cleveland or Bob Castellini in Cincinnati. John Middleton wants to keep his money in Philadelphia instead of seeing it go to Bruce Sherman in Miami. The Steinbrenner family would love to keep their money in-house instead of John Fisher getting a cut in Oakland.

Because of these battle lines, the owners are not a unified front despite public perception. Small-market owners are looking out for how they can get maximum dollars from their large-market brethren. And in turn, large-market owners are trying to put the squeeze on their small-market peers. There isn’t a one-size-fits-all belief in the ownership hall when discussions take place. Could this internal rancor be part of the reason why there has been seemingly so little movement and compromise on the side of the owners? I don’t discount this possibility.

Finding Balance

At the end of the day, there is a two-front war taking place in these labor discussions. The owners vs. players battle gets all the headlines, but the internal battle between the owners has to be playing a part in this. Small-market owners don’t want their handouts to go away and they have the power to hold up this entire process. There are enough small-market owners that could band together to thwart a potential deal because it could be disastrous to their self-interests with regards to things like revenue sharing and spending floors.

Rob Manfred is a puppet who exists because 30 franchise heads allow him to exist and he knows this. So he and his stooges have to find a way to bridge gaps between the ultra-rich and slightly less rich in order to move toward an agreement. The internal bickering that takes place between owners in every CBA discussion gets little publicity, but with time being of the essence now as the calendar reads mid-February, it should be looked at with more scrutiny.

None of these owners will go broke regardless of the new CBA terms. They might try to paint that picture, but my four-year-old nephew could paint a more convincing picture if he desired. Somehow, Manfred needs to find a way to muster the 23 necessary votes, pulling in enough small market owners to get a deal done. The acrimony that exists between franchise owners is hilarious to me, but it could be a major source of the current stalemate. How those gaps between large- and small-market owners get closed is beyond me, but they can’t be allowed to hold this process up any longer.

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Former scrub JUCO pitcher

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