Proposing A 44-Game 2020 MLB Season, Expanded Playoffs

Image credit: (Photo by John Nacion/NurPhotos via Getty Images)

Right now, Major League Baseball and the Players’ Association are at an impasse. 

The league, realizing that games will be played without fans in stadiums in 2020, want the players to take an additional pay cut on top of the one the two sides negotiated in March. In MLB’s view, the March agreement allowed for further negotiations on salary and other items if games were played without fans.

The MLBPA is just as firmly convinced that the March agreement did not imply further salary negotiations in the case of fan-less games. Thus, the union will not agree to changing the salary parameters of the March deal. As part of the deal at the time, they negotiated concessions on reduced salary payments in the case of no 2020 season, allowed for a shortened MLB draft with stricter spending rules (and deferred bonuses) and allowed for the delay of the international signing period. In return, MLB promised full service time to players in the case of no 2020 season.

We’ll leave it to others to evaluate the merits of the two sides’ arguments. Frankly, it’s not particularly material to getting a deal done if both sides remain firm in their current views.

If MLB and the MLBPA are both unwilling to budge off their current positions, the only path to a deal will involve a little bit of creativity. The MLBPA is unlikely to adopt any version of MLB’s revenue-sharing proposal, while MLB is unlikely to play 81 games with players receiving half of their full-season salary.

If MLB is convinced that playing regular-season games without fans is a money-loser, then they have the option to shorten the season even further. Both sides have agreed to a formula already—players get paid a prorated share of their full salary based on games played.

So here’s our proposal. Instead of an 81-game season and an expanded 14-team playoffs, cut the season even more dramatically to 44 games with a 20-team playoff format.

Is it radical? Absolutely. Is it ideal? Not a chance. Is it the best from an array of bad options? Maybe.

MLB argues that some teams will lose money on regular-season games without fans. Cutting the season from 81 games to 44 reduces those issues, while expanding the playoffs potentially adds to postseason revenues.

For the players, such a proposal doesn’t require tearing up the current deal. Players have already agreed to be paid at a prorated amount based on the number of games played—so if there were a 44-game regular season, players would be paid 27 percent of their full yearly salaries. With a 20-team playoff, most MLB players could expect to receive postseason shares as well (the postseason revenue split would also need to be negotiated between MLB and the MLBPA if playoffs are to expand).

The 44-game schedule would allow each team to play six games against its other division opponents (24 total games) and four games against each of the five teams in the teams from the other league’s similar division. The NL East and AL East, NL Central and AL Central and NL West and AL West would play each other.

In our 44-game season, the regular season could be played in roughly seven weeks. The playoffs themselves would take another six weeks or so to resolve.

There is very little chance that a 44-game season would produce the results that would happen over the course of a normal season—at the 44-game mark last year the Nationals had the second-worst record in the National League—but any chance for a normal season was washed away long ago. An 81-game season has many of the same issues. This is about finding the best possible solution in a bucket of less-than-ideal options.

This is a starting point. Maybe 60 games is a better compromise. But both parties can enter into this negotiation without feeling they are violating their stance on the original agreement.

A shortened season lessens the amount of time that players, coaches and other staff members would be risking exposure (which is a legitimate concern). And it makes it possible for baseball to finish its postseason earlier, reducing the risk of getting caught in a potential second coronavirus outbreak during the fall.

There would still need to be plenty of negotiations over testing, health and safety and other concerns—there are many real concerns and issues that will have to be worked through. And players who opt not to play for health reasons would need to receive assurances that they can opt out without long-term penalty (something commissioner Rob Manfred agreed to in an interview on CNN on May 14).

But discussing how long the regular season should be and making that the starting point for negotiations is a much less complicated and more viable path to a 2020 season than revenue-share splits as MLB has currently proposed. Getting the two sides to agree on what constitutes revenues could take weeks on its own—simply defining revenues takes up 15 pages of the current NFL Collective Bargaining Agreement, for example.

A 44-game schedule is understandably grating to the ear of baseball traditionalists, but nothing about 2020 is traditional. It is one potential way to get to actual games this season.

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