In a synchronized timeline that is probably not a coincidence, most MLB teams have vowed to pay their employees at least through May, as they work together with the players to figure out a doable plan to kick off the season in July.
It doesn’t take any inside info to believe that, in a world where a return-to-play plan is put in place by the end of this month, most teams will continue to employ most of their staff on into the summer. By contrast, if negotiations fall through – or if the risks that the plan, itself, will get upended later this year are deemed too high – June 1 is probably when you start seeing teams consider painful, human-connected cost-saving measures.
Indeed, some of that is going to happen regardless of the plan on a return to baseball. For example, just yesterday The Athletic reported that the Mariners will be cutting by 20% pay for all employees who make over $60,000, starting on June 1 and lasting through October 31. In exchange, they are promising no layoffs or furloughs through October 31. “The cut will affect roughly 60 people employed by the team in various departments, such as player development, scouting and high performance.”
I expect announcements like that to pick up in the coming weeks, especially in June, and especially if the plan to play looks like it might fail, one way or another.
Worse, I fear that most of those cost-saving measures will involve deep layoffs of so many people who make baseball work.
It’s an example worth pondering among baseball owners at a time when there is industry fear — anticipation, really — of massive layoffs in the weeks ahead. Major League Baseball fields are empty, ballpark gates closed, concession stands shuttered. The $11 billion revenue river has dried up, and while league and team officials and union leaders must and will weigh contingency plans, nobody knows for sure when the sport will open for business again; a hot spot of coronavirus cases, like those just experienced in the safe haven of the White House, could derail any restart.
Some teams have already started layoffs, and among front-office officials there is an expectation that one of the most significant waves of firings could occur immediately after next month’s amateur draft.
Not every team will be impacted equally by the loss of revenues this year, with Olney mentioning small-market clubs as most impacted, and also says this: “some of the big-market franchises are perceived within the industry to be cash-poor, including the New York Mets and Chicago Cubs, for varying reasons.”
I am going to guess that the Cubs, whose revenues have exploded in recent years, are “perceived” as cash-poor because of significant investments in and around Wrigley Field, and building out the Marquee Sports Network. I cannot speak to whether that perception is accurate, but when Olney mentions the Cubs in this context, I notice it.
Are we about to see a wave of layoffs from the Cubs? In baseball operations? In scouting? On the business side? Ballpark staff? Fan services?
Only the Cubs know what their various plans are, and I’m not going to beat up on a straw man by presuming one direction or the other. We’ll see what we see when we see it, and we’ll analyze it then.
Instead, against the backdrop of this cost-savings conversation – and really, the conversation about player compensation, too – I want to speak more generally to MLB teams on the whole before any of these major decisions are made.
From the angles I can see, mass employee layoffs – like crushing the draft and demanding players take another haircut – would be a terrible, shortsighted decision. But unlike the decisions with respect to the draft and players, this is a decision that is left entirely up to each organization. So the ones who make the wrongheaded, shortsighted moves? They’re the ones who will disproportionately be burned by it.
It’s really not hard to imagine the disruption that would be caused by letting employees go, en masse, when you’re trying to navigate a very challenging time for the organization. It seems that keeping the band together should be seen as a sage investment in positioning your organization to be in the right place when the world turns. The organizations that have been grinding in full force throughout this process are going to have a huge head start on the ones that see right now as a “pause,” and then have to try to ramp back up at a time when the loss of revenues are going to be hammering you anyway.
Think of the decision making processes that would be fundamentally disrupted. Think of the scouting infrastructures that would be decimated. Think of the player development infrastructures (in which the Cubs, for one example, have started investing so heavily) that could be set back another X number of years. Think of the business-side processes that you’d been building out to maximize revenue. How much of that are you willing to risk blowing up and converting from a terrible one-year problem to a still-really-darn-bad five-year problem?
And none of that even gets into the less concrete, but no less real, league-wide goodwill that you’d burn by letting employees go in the middle of a pandemic when (most?) other organizations are not. It would send a very clear message on what your organizational culture is really about. It would also invite questions about how others in the organization are compensated, about how the organization has decided to make capital investments, how the organization uses the dollars it reaps from the fans, and where ownership’s priorities really lie.
Lastly, call me naive, but I still believe there are some moral imperatives at work here. In a crisis (actually, always?), those who are in the position to help others, and who do not, are condemning themselves in some karmic way. Maybe that karma winds up merely being the economic and societal forces described above, but I feel like it’s more than that. This world wants us to do good. For each other. With each other. It’s rare that sports teams have an opportunity to truly be such a fundamental and impactful force for that good. When it comes to the lives of those who depend on and care about them? Yes, the teams have that power right now.
I’m not saying there might not be a need for some MLB organizations to cut costs this year. That seems a given in virtually every business operation associated in any way with sports (or just any business operation at all). I’m not even saying the cost-savings cannot be attached to humans in same way (indeed, almost all of it will be in one way or another).
Instead, I’m saying only what I suspect should be obvious to everyone: there are ways to cut costs this year that will invite deserved scrutiny and backlash, and there are ways to cut costs this year that will not.
More importantly, there are ways to sacrifice some short-term dollars that will generate positivity, hope, long-term value, and real good. In a business built almost entirely on the idea that you need to engender long-lasting passionate love among your fans, now is the time – more than ever – to justify that love.
Do right by your players. Do right by your employees. Do right by your fans. Do good.