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Fights Labor

Labor fights, new competition, invisible players: Why MLB may be sports’ biggest loser during COVID-19 pandemic – USA TODAY

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USA TODAY Sports’ Gabe Lacques breaks down the greatest issues surrounding negotiations between Major League Baseball and its’ players.

USA TODAY

As professional sports peeks its collective head out from the cover of a pandemic, and methodically finds a path to re-starting its leagues, the uncertainty runs far beyond how many games they may play, whether championships will be awarded and when fans might be allowed to view it all in person.

No, the greater unknown lies in what changes brought about by mitigating COVID-19 may become permanent, and how they may significantly reorder the sports landscape.

And in many scenarios where a new world order emerges, the biggest loser may very well be Major League Baseball.

Forget, for a moment, that the league and its players are engaged in a fight over hundreds of millions of dollars and cannot come to an agreement to play, even as fans grapple with millions of job losses, more than 100,000 American deaths in a pandemic and a racial reckoning decades in the making.

No, even if MLB had its house in order, disruption in the sports industry – namely, the double-edged sword of cord-cutting and sagging attendance – already put the game’s financial model in some peril. The events of 2020, sports industry experts believe, will only accelerate that – and the current fight between owners and players may only exacerbate it.

“Frankly, the relationship between MLB and the Players’ Association is one of the things constraining the future of baseball. They have to work together,” says Marc Ganis, president of Chicago-based SportsCorp, a firm that regularly consults with MLB, the NFL and NBA. “Everything can’t be a battle.

“The players, in their organization, have not felt a need to work with the owners because the money has continued to roll in. To their perspective, there is no crisis. But they’re about to get hit in the face with a wet fish. Because after this season, we may see a meaningful reduction in big, long-term contracts given to players because the teams cannot project revenue accurately.”

Ganis cites the usual reasons for baseball’s existential crisis: The average age of the fan is in the low 50s compared to the 30-something flock of NBA fans. A loss of local broadcast revenue due to cord-cutting, followed further down the road by a potential regional sports network bubble. And, of course, the usual concerns about a game that is too deliberate and too slow to grow a base beyond its aging core.

The sports world, mid- and post-pandemic, will only be more cutthroat.

NBA moving into MLB territory

In a jungle where football is king and everyone else scrambles for the remaining billions of dollars to sustain their industries, baseball, hockey, men’s and women’s basketball and soccer have grown adept at carving out spaces away from Big Football.

For baseball, that meant a near-monopoly on the summer months, a perfect runway for its practically bottomless inventory. But if necessity is the mother of invention, it’s also the father of encroachment. And for the next two years, the threat of the NBA will grow even more real.

Should baseball reach an agreement to play this season, it will enjoy an exclusivity window of only three weeks in early July, as the NBA projects its games will resume in late July.

If both leagues avoid shutdowns caused by a rash of coronavirus cases, baseball will find itself head-to-head with hoops into its playoffs, as Game 7 of the NBA Finals is tentatively scheduled for Oct. 12.

Next season will be no better: The NBA plans a Dec. 1 tipoff of the 2020-21 season, pushing its regular season into May, the Finals into July, the draft after that. That’s a full season of moving more of its inventory head-to-head with baseball, rather than football. And the NBA could very well like the results.

“There will be encroachment on the typical MLB calendar,” says Ganis, “and if that is successful, they may find ratings and fan interest so great, they may encroach another month or longer on the traditional baseball season. That would be very bad for Major League Baseball.”

Particularly with the sport already taking a significant drop at the box office, with attendance drops of 4% in 2018 and an additional 1.6% in 2019. Throw in what would likely be an almost fan-free 2020 season, with health and economic concerns lingering into 2021, and a sport that still relies on attendance for at least 40% of its revenues will be scrambling to stanch further losses.

Protecting the base beyond a relatively hardy core in an economy that may suffer for years will be the challenge.

“I don’t think anything about COVID and the lockdowns we’ve had changes an avid fan’s connection with the sport,” says Alex  Evans, managing director of  L.E.K. Consulting. “The concern might be longer-term, if this were to go beyond this season. It’s harder to bring fans back in, and a lot of sports fandom is passed down from generations. The longer you don’t have that opportunity, you do have that issue.

“It’s really the casual fan who on the whim buys day-of-game tickets and gets bleacher seats for the family. That may suffer more. On the margins, there’s more concerns about the experience or being in a larger group setting.”

Fighting over money doesn’t help

MLB remains a $10 billion industry, and its demise is far from imminent, particularly with local TV contracts such as the Los Angeles Dodgers’ 25-year deal, signed in January 2013, that’s valued at $8.35 billion. Equity stakes in networks ensure many franchises get an even bigger piece of their own pie than traditional TV deals.

But as cord-cutting increases, and the gold rush of deals signed last decade begin to sunset, franchises may feel immediate and long-term effects. This winter, assuming baseball manages to hammer out a deal and play a 2020 season, the sport’s current problems – lack of recognition for its biggest stars, a slow game, a labor war that will brew through 2021 – and its extended ones may collide.

Consider that by the time Opening Day 2021 comes around, several franchises may have played as few as 50 games since September 2019. In that same span, NBA teams will have played more than 130 games.

Good luck marketing emerging stars like Juan Soto, Ronald Acuna Jr. and Bo Bichette when the likes of Mike Trout and Bryce Harper have long been absent from everyone’s TV. That’s largely due to the timing of the COVID-19 outbreak, which was totally out of MLB’s hands. That can’t be said for the rest of its issues.

“Being out of sight really does mean being out of mind, in this case,” says Ganis. “It doesn’t help that the perception is players and owners are battling over money when the rest of the country is hurting terribly.

“Wait until next offseason. I think players will be shocked at how many teams are unable to project accurate revenue and be reticent to give out big-money contracts. Not because of collusion, but because of not being able to project revenues correctly.”

Just in time for the next labor showdown, after a 2021 season that may be played in a new, less-forgiving landscape.

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Bolsonaro Fights

Bolsonaro Fights for Survival, Turning to Empowered Military Elders – The New York Times

A flailing leader has given Brazil’s generals an opening to insert themselves onto the front lines of politics.

Credit…Ueslei Marcelino/Reuters

RIO DE JANEIRO — Jair Bolsonaro ascended to Brazil’s presidency with a sweeping set of promises, like cutting out the rot of corruption, firing up the economy and doing away with the country’s notorious pork-barrel politics.

What a difference 16 months make.

Battered by a torrent of investigations into him and his family, an economy in free-fall and criticism of his cavalier handling of one of the world’s fastest growing coronavirus epidemics, Mr. Bolsonaro is fighting for political survival.

Now, with calls for his impeachment intensifying, he is being shored up by a narrowing band of leaders who are gaining outsize power as his troubles multiply.

Mr. Bolsonaro has become increasingly reliant on a cadre of military elders, entrusting them with the most power they have had since the military dictatorship ended in the 1980s.

And despite his early vows to clean up politics, he has become highly dependent on career politicians, including several marred by corruption allegations, who are eager to extract favors from a floundering leader. That could give them control over billions of dollars in public spending as the country enters a severe recession.

The pandemic has left Mr. Bolsonaro especially vulnerable. Brazil is quickly becoming a global hot spot, and this week surpassed the number of deaths reported by China. Yet the president has continued to resist calls for stricter quarantines and displayed little empathy for the more than 6,300 Brazilians who have died, setting off widespread criticism that he has been reckless and callous.

“So what? Sorry, but what do you want me to do?” he said this week of the mounting death toll, before making a joke about his middle name. “My name is Messiah, but I can’t work miracles.”

His troubles extend well beyond the virus. Mr. Bolsonaro’s presidency had already been flailing for weeks — and then he set off an unexpected political crisis last week.

He fired the federal police chief, and the reaction was fierce. Justice Minister Sergio Moro, the most popular member of the cabinet, resigned in protest. In an extraordinary parting shot, Mr. Moro accused the president of seeking to obstruct justice by putting a subservient official at the helm of an agency investigating several of his allies, including one of Mr. Bolsonaro’s sons.

That led the Supreme Court to open an investigation into Mr. Bolsonaro’s actions and block his appointment of a new federal police chief. Mr. Bolsonaro reacted defiantly, saying he had not abandoned the “dream” of having a family friend at the helm of the police force, raising the prospect of an institutional clash.

Demands for the president’s resignation and impeachment are gaining traction in Congress, where a leaderless and disparate opposition lacks a clear plan to bring him down. Even so, lawmakers and the Supreme Court are leaving Mr. Bolsonaro with little room to maneuver.

“He’s delusional in thinking he’s unbound by the Constitution,” said Randolfe Rodrigues, a prominent opposition senator. “I hope he starts discovering that he’s subject to the rule of law.”

The president’s office declined interviews this week. But as Mr. Bolsonaro has become radioactive for much of the political establishment in the capital, Brasília, diplomats and political scientists have begun to game out how much upheaval the generals who serve in senior positions will tolerate.

Active and former military officials currently hold nine of the 22 cabinet positions, including three that operate out of the presidential palace. Those perches have given Brazil’s military broad authority over issues like fiscal policy, development in the Amazon and the response to the pandemic.

“I think this is the best government team we’ve had in the last 30 years, by far,” retired Gen. Paulo Chagas, who has run for office but is not in the government, said in an interview. “However, the vulnerability of the government is its own leader, who is perpetually giving ammunition to his adversaries.”

As chaos engulfs Mr. Bolsonaro’s presidency, speculation that his vice president, retired Gen. Hamilton Mourão, is readying to take over has been rife in memes and back door conversations. Mr. Mourão at times has appeared to relish the pandemonium.

Shortly after Mr. Bolsonaro fired his health minister on April 17 — after complaining about the minister’s strong endorsement of social distancing measures — the vice president smirked as he told journalists, “Everything is under control: We just don’t know whose.”

Amy Erica Smith, a political scientist at Iowa State University who specializes in Brazil, said the generals who have tied their lot to Mr. Bolsonaro must now be worried about their personal reputations and the military’s image as a guarantor of order.

“The crisis we’re entering raises the threat that the military might decide that civilian leadership isn’t effective and decide to take over,” she said. “It seems clear that the military continues to have this idea of itself as a tutelary force in politics.”

Political analysts say a conventional military takeover is unthinkable in today’s Brazil, given the strength of Congress, the courts, civil society and the press. But Ms. Smith said the generals could turn an embattled Mr. Bolsonaro into a figurehead leader or tacitly support efforts to impeach him, which would leave Mr. Mourão in control.

The sudden prospect of a new presidential ouster four years after the tumultuous impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff has scrambled politics in Brasília, where lawmakers have submitted at least 29 impeachment petitions against Mr. Bolsonaro.

Mr. Bolsonaro is the rare president without a political party, having broken ranks with the one that brought him to power last November. Despite having spent nearly three decades in Congress, he has not made an effort to build a governing coalition in Brazil’s multiparty legislature.

That has led a cluster of center and center-right parties informally known as the centrão to demand lucrative and influential government posts in exchange for shielding him from impeachment.

Roberto Jefferson, a former member of Congress from the centrão who admitted to playing a leading role in a kickbacks scheme in 2005, said Mr. Bolsonaro’s political survival now depends on cutting deals with power brokers in the centrão, several of whom have also been tainted by corruption allegations.

“Every party has its sinners,” Mr. Jefferson said in an interview. “Who’s a saint in that realm?”

The jobs that centrão leaders are angling for would give their parties discretion over billions of dollars.

The centrão’s emerging alliance with Mr. Bolsonaro would also give its members significant sway over an enormous public infrastructure spending plan announced by a military member of the government in an effort to generate jobs. The economy is expected to contract by between 5 percent and 9 percent this year.

Political analysts see those plans as anathema to Mr. Bolsonaro’s austerity goals and his pledge to break with the kind of back-room horse-trading that spawned staggering levels of corruption in the past.

Mr. Moro, a former federal judge who became the most visible figure of a national crackdown on corruption that began in 2014, says he no longer believes the government is committed to rooting out graft.

“I agreed to join the Bolsonaro government to strengthen the fight against corruption,” he said in a text message to The New York Times. “I gave up when I concluded I would not have the ability to make headway in that area.”

The president’s handling of the coronavirus crisis and Mr. Moro’s departure has disappointed some of his wealthier and better-educated supporters. But a recent public opinion poll conducted by Datafolha, a leading Brazilian research company, showed 33 percent of respondents continued to support him, suggesting his overall approval rate has remained relatively steady.

Throughout his campaign and presidency, Mr. Bolsonaro has benefited from well-organized and nimble propaganda and disinformation campaigns that have bypassed the mainstream press by relying on social media platforms and text messaging apps.

“The political right in Brazil has the most sophisticated system to rely on supporters to spread misinformation to the public,” said Marco Ruediger, a researcher at Fundação Getulio Vargas University who studies political disinformation online.

But that strategic advantage has become a liability as the federal police and a congressional committee investigate the structure and workings of shadowy online communities that support the president. Among those under investigation are two of the president’s sons, Eduardo and Carlos Bolsonaro.

The president’s erratic handling of the coronavirus, which he has called a “measly cold,” has tested the resilience of his online supporters, Mr. Ruediger said.

But one base that appears to be steadfast is Evangelical Christians, who supported Mr. Bolsonaro staunchly during the campaign.

Mr. Bolsonaro in recent days has nodded to the issues that animate that constituency by reminding them of his opposition to abortion and by falsely claiming that the World Health Organization promotes homosexuality and encourages toddlers to masturbate.

“All the major leaders of Evangelical churches in Brazil, all of them continue supporting him in the same way,” Silas Malafaia, the leader of one of the country’s megachurches, said in an interview. “Bolsonaro will only lose our support if he ends up being personally embroiled in corruption.”

  • Updated April 11, 2020

    • What should I do if I feel sick?

      If you’ve been exposed to the coronavirus or think you have, and have a fever or symptoms like a cough or difficulty breathing, call a doctor. They should give you advice on whether you should be tested, how to get tested, and how to seek medical treatment without potentially infecting or exposing others.

    • When will this end?

      This is a difficult question, because a lot depends on how well the virus is contained. A better question might be: “How will we know when to reopen the country?” In an American Enterprise Institute report, Scott Gottlieb, Caitlin Rivers, Mark B. McClellan, Lauren Silvis and Crystal Watson staked out four goal posts for recovery: Hospitals in the state must be able to safely treat all patients requiring hospitalization, without resorting to crisis standards of care; the state needs to be able to at least test everyone who has symptoms; the state is able to conduct monitoring of confirmed cases and contacts; and there must be a sustained reduction in cases for at least 14 days.

    • Should I wear a mask?

      The C.D.C. has recommended that all Americans wear cloth masks if they go out in public. This is a shift in federal guidance reflecting new concerns that the coronavirus is being spread by infected people who have no symptoms. Until now, the C.D.C., like the W.H.O., has advised that ordinary people don’t need to wear masks unless they are sick and coughing. Part of the reason was to preserve medical-grade masks for health care workers who desperately need them at a time when they are in continuously short supply. Masks don’t replace hand washing and social distancing.

    • How does coronavirus spread?

      It seems to spread very easily from person to person, especially in homes, hospitals and other confined spaces. The pathogen can be carried on tiny respiratory droplets that fall as they are coughed or sneezed out. It may also be transmitted when we touch a contaminated surface and then touch our face.

    • Is there a vaccine yet?

      No. Clinical trials are underway in the United States, China and Europe. But American officials and pharmaceutical executives have said that a vaccine remains at least 12 to 18 months away.

    • What makes this outbreak so different?

      Unlike the flu, there is no known treatment or vaccine, and little is known about this particular virus so far. It seems to be more lethal than the flu, but the numbers are still uncertain. And it hits the elderly and those with underlying conditions — not just those with respiratory diseases — particularly hard.

    • What if somebody in my family gets sick?

      If the family member doesn’t need hospitalization and can be cared for at home, you should help him or her with basic needs and monitor the symptoms, while also keeping as much distance as possible, according to guidelines issued by the C.D.C. If there’s space, the sick family member should stay in a separate room and use a separate bathroom. If masks are available, both the sick person and the caregiver should wear them when the caregiver enters the room. Make sure not to share any dishes or other household items and to regularly clean surfaces like counters, doorknobs, toilets and tables. Don’t forget to wash your hands frequently.

    • Should I stock up on groceries?

      Plan two weeks of meals if possible. But people should not hoard food or supplies. Despite the empty shelves, the supply chain remains strong. And remember to wipe the handle of the grocery cart with a disinfecting wipe and wash your hands as soon as you get home.

    • Should I pull my money from the markets?

      That’s not a good idea. Even if you’re retired, having a balanced portfolio of stocks and bonds so that your money keeps up with inflation, or even grows, makes sense. But retirees may want to think about having enough cash set aside for a year’s worth of living expenses and big payments needed over the next five years.


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