Major League Baseball locks out players for first time in quarter century

When Major League Baseball locked out its players as the clock struck midnight on Thursday, its ninth work stoppage in more than a century, it was as if the game’s biggest stars just disappeared.

Stories about player trades and multimillion-dollar contracts were scrubbed from the MLB website. Photos of star sluggers such as Giancarlo Stanton and Shohei Ohtani were replaced with blank, anonymous silhouettes on roster pages for baseball’s 30 teams.

Professional baseball in the US has a long and tortured record of halting play because of conflict between club owners and the players’ union, both through labour strikes and employer lockouts. The last such work stoppage came in the form of a player strike during the 1994 season, cancelling that year’s World Series. But after a quarter century of labour peace, the newest baseball lockout is unfurling in the digital sphere for the first time.

“It’s not a good thing for the sport, it’s not something we undertake lightly, we understand it’s bad for business,” said MLB commissioner Rob Manfred on Thursday, shortly after the owners opted to close down the league.

The lockout began as the previous collective bargaining agreement, governing labour and employment terms between the two sides, expired at 11:59pm Wednesday. Manfred said he hoped a new deal could be finalised during the current baseball off-season and before the 2022 season begins.

Tony Clark, executive director of the MLB Players Association, called the lockout a “drastic and unnecessary measure” but said he was committed to negotiating a new CBA that “enhances competition, improves the product for our fans, and advances the rights and benefits of our membership”.

The sides are yet to agree on key points, including the proposed expansion of baseball’s playoffs and terms of revenue sharing between players and owners. Manfred said the league had offered to create a draft lottery for new talent and institute a universal designated hitter (a player who bats but does not field, currently utilised by only half of MLB clubs) across the league. The MLBPA, meanwhile, has asked to shorten the eligibility window for player free agency — where they can renegotiate their contract or seek a transfer — to five from seven years and raising the threshold at which club payrolls are taxed by the league.

Against this backdrop, the sport is grappling with changing consumer tastes and the advent of digital media. Average game attendance has declined from highs in the 1990s and early 2000s — dropping precipitously since games reopened to fans during the pandemic, as its fan base has aged.

Nine-inning games lasting upwards of four hours were ideal entertainment when radio ruled the day; in the streaming era, with movies, sitcoms and other live sports available at the push of a button, baseball has a lot of competition.

A work stoppage extending into the springtime could threaten the delicate ecosystem of regional sports networks, or RSNs, which carry most baseball games.

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Unlike other US professional sports with strong national media rights, baseball relies heavily on ticket revenues and a host of regional sports networks, or RSNs, to carry and distribute game broadcasts. MLB’s 162-game regular season dwarfs the duration of other professional leagues, such as the National Football League (17 weeks) and the National Basketball Association (82). 

“If there is a protracted lockout, and it interferes with the regular season games, it would interfere with all licensees as MLB is a significant source of programming given the lengthy season and number of games”, said Neil Begley, senior vice-president for media and telecom at rating agency Moody’s. “They will prove difficult to replace, particularly RSNs that significantly depend upon one or two sports teams including baseball.”

Christopher Ripley, chief executive of one of the largest RSN carriers, Sinclair Broadcast Group, told analysts on Tuesday that there “could be an impact” to the industry by a lockout, particularly around discussions of potential direct-to-consumer streaming products.

MLB has been in talks to offer its own national streaming platform, according to the New York Post, a move which if finalised would offer consumers an option to sidestep expensive cable package subscriptions necessary to watch games.

For the moment, the lockout is mainly interfering with players’ abilities to train, rehabilitate injuries, or procure new contracts during free agency. With the CBA expiring, clubs spent more than $1.7bn over the past month signing free agents before the freeze. Record-winning pitcher Max Scherzer inked a three-year, $130m contract with the New York Mets just before the deadline, one of the largest individual deals in MLB history.

Scherzer, himself a member of the MLBPA subcommittee on labour negotiations, said such a contract was only possible with a deep-pocketed owner such as Steve Cohen, the hedge fund titan who acquired the Mets for $2.4bn last autumn, with a willingness to spend over the league’s luxury tax threshold.

“That’s something we’re negotiating right now, how teams view that as a cap and won’t spend too much over that despite the penalties on that being pretty negligible”, Scherzer said Wednesday in the hours before the CBA deadline. As a player, he added, “You need an owner behind you as much as anybody on the team”.

In the meantime, fellow players have taken to mocking the owners’ erasure of the league roster photos, changing profile pictures on social media to the blank grey silhouettes. Some, like pitcher Noah Syndergaard, tweeted an image of an enraged Kathy Bates from the 1990 film “Misery” to lambast the MLB lockout letter.

Manfred, the commissioner, said “people put way too much emphasis” on the fractured relations between owners and players.

“At the end of the day it’s about the substance” of a new labour contract. “We’re here. They’re there. We need to find a way to bridge the gap”.

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