Although baseball will soon be back in our lives, it’s important to remember that the players union and league did not actually come to a new agreement. Negotiations happened, votes were taken, talks broke down, and eventually, the owners unilaterally implemented a 60-game season based on the previous March Agreement … the very agreement both sides were working to amend.
The implications of this path forward extend well beyond the shortened 2020 season, but in the near-term there is still some significant, immediate impact. For example, while certain aspects of the prior negotiations made it into the 2020 plans (universal DH, expanded rosters, etc.), other aspects were added thereafter (the new extra-inning rules).
But some proposed changes – including ones we’d all come to expect – have been left out entirely. For example, an expanded postseason.
In the absence of an amended agreement between the league and the union, the would-be 14 or 16-team expanded postseason field defaulted back to the usual 10-team format (three division winners and two wild cards per league). But while that may simplify some logistics and provide a more familiar experience for fans, it certainly leaves some money on the table for both sides.
In an interview with the Associated Press, union leader Tony Clark indicated that he would be willing to discuss and negotiate the terms of an expanded postseason, should MLB attempt to make another proposal on the matter, as is expected: “I would simply say that if there’s interest to discuss something, I’ll be available to discuss it,” Clark said.
Clark’s words may seem to imply a lack of eagerness, but his willingness is all we really needed to hear. After all, there is likely a significant amount of money at stake here, even without fans in the stands this season. And that consideration includes the players, whose only share of postseason money comes as a percentage of playoff gate receipts … a figure that could be close to, or literally, zero this season (it was $80.9M in 2019).
Seeing as the league was literally willing to blow up negotiations over the possibility of missing the playoffs (they were steadfast that the regular season must end on September 27th, so that the entire postseason could be fit into October, mitigating against the risk of a second-wave shutdown and ensuring that all TV contracts could be executed as planned), you can imagine there are still significant dollars available to them. And with even more games and more markets in play, that TV figure could be even sweeter than usual.
So that brings us to the next step: How does this actually get done?
Well, the league would first have to make a proposal to the union and that’ll necessarily have to come with some significant benefits to the players, though those aren’t difficult to imagine. With just 60 games scheduled this season, players are set to earn just 37% of their expected 2020 salaries. So any extra postseason dollars from MLB could go a long way.
But the obvious and immediate question is … Why would we expect the sides to agree to anything at all, given the way things went? In other words, what’s changed?
Well, perhaps without the added pressure of a broader deal, one individual decision (expanded playoffs) will be easier to settle. And with a few other variables to adjust outside of the money (14 teams or 16 teams? 2020 only, or 2021 too?) they might actually be able to make something happen.
Remember, even before the pandemic, credible rumors floated that the league was eager to expand the postseason to 14 teams – three division winners and four Wild Cards in each league – as soon as 2022 (the first year under a new CBA). So maybe there is already some momentum in this direction. I still have questions over how/when the additional games would be added – we’re already running a tight race and the second-wave threat remains – but again, there is potentially significant money at stake here, and that’s usually pretty good motivation.
And all of that is to completely ignore the fact that a broader playoff field could be welcomed by fans and players *this year* given the unusually shortened season. Obviously, this is baseball and anything can happen in small series. But the inclusion of more teams after a shortened season, first round byes for the best teams, and more opportunities/games for the field should help the best teams rise to the top.
Now we wait to see (if) what the league proposes.