Friday, February 17, 2006

the prospect of labor pains

the eminent arizona phil over at cub reporter presents an interesting perspective on one of the legacies of the last round of labor negotiations -- the deferred right of ownership to unilaterally contract two franchises following the 2006 season, with a window of decision ending on july 1, 2006, whereupon ownership must notify the union.

as has been noted here before, the collective bargaining agreement expires following this season, about which this writer said:

only once in the history of baseball since unionization has that deadline gone without a work stoppage -- next year is likely to be a shortened season. more importantly, the terms that follow the conclusion of negotiation are likely to be yet less favorable to tribco and other large owners -- more revenue sharing is certainly on the table in an effort to improve competitive balance.

another measure of improved competitive balance often cited by owners in the past has been the contraction of teams in uncompetitive markets. as phil notes, this has come largely to mean teams which have not been able to negotiate for publicly-funded stadium construction which are also unwilling to foot the bill themselves. new stadiums have become an all-but-necessary implement of competitive baseball, largely because of the immense rents received from luxury boxes. local operating revenue has become a growth area in sport since the 1990s, and the advantages offered to a team like the san francisco giants, seattle mariners or houston astros with a new box-stacked park over teams like the florida marlins (who don't control the luxury box revenue in the stadium they rent) or the kansas city royals or minnesota twins (who play in stadiums designed before the luxury box revolution) are considerable, magnifying any disadvantage in mere market size and wealth. one need look only as far as the retasking of what was once a restaurant in the wrigley field batter's eye to understand how badly rentable suites are wanted.

it's important to note that what we're discussing is a previously-negotiated right that can be exercized by ownership unilaterally. anyone who can remember the last bout of labor negotiation in baseball in 2002 -- which ended, unusually enough, without a work stoppage thanks to the deference of the players -- knows that contraction was one of ownerships' biggest issues and nearly became the sticking point over which another stoppage would have emerged. the vast majority of ownership, having already collected and disseminated the fees of 1990s expansion, look now to the possibility of dividing the $416mm annual pie of national television broadcast rights (not to mention emerging media rights, such as satellite and internet) into fewer slices -- and, with the sale of the now-washington expos/nationals garnering a likely windfall to ownership of some $200mm+ and defraying the buyout costs of contraction, remaining teams could end up in a net profit position rather quickly, within just a few years.

so there is a clear motivtion -- ideological and financial -- to ownership exercizing that right to contraction. what remains to be seen is how the players would react to it.

it's true, of course, that the players signed on to the collective bargaining agreement which included the negotiation of this ownership option -- but that doesn't at all mean that the players union has to react positively to its actual exercize. contraction was the source of a great deal of acrimony in 2001 and 2002. donald fehr went so far as to dispute the entire logic of small-market limitations:

There is this notion out there that you have markets that can't generate revenue, and you have markets that can, as if those were always the same ones. The problem is that it is not true. Until Jacobs Field, the Indians were considered to be the worst of all possible circumstances, hopeless. They made the movie "Major League" about the Indians because it was sort of a joke. Seattle was thought to be the same way. The success of a franchise does not necessarily remain static over time. It depends on what happens and it depends on how well it is run. And what we do know is that at times in the past, there has been very significant attendance in Minneapolis.

of course, the problems in cleveland and seattle were largely resolved by shining new temples to the sport, whose new revenue streams propelled those teams into consistent competition, in the indians' case, for the first time in decades. if it's understood that what challenges the challenged markets of baseball is often less the city they're located in than the stadium they play in, the logical foundation for the players to resist contraction on the grounds that stadium financing is the solution to the problem -- and not job cuts -- is set, along with the stage for yet another labor confrontation in baseball.

if ownership contracts, say, the twins and the marlins -- the two teams whose problems in stadium financing have been most persistent and seem irremediable -- i would expect an unholy roar to emit from the players union and bad blood to begin circulating at a time when negotiating teams will (hopefully) be meeting to hammer out a new basic agreement. there is a lot that will be on the table -- including another run at increased revenue sharing, anathema to the players, in the interests of competitive balance. in a sport that has had eight work stoppages in nine labor negotiations since 1972 -- the one exception being the forced amicus that emerged from the memories of the savage 1994-5 strike and the frightening 2001 terrorist crisis -- this is a recipe for strife.

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