While it would still surprise me to find that the 2021 Major League Baseball season goes off totally as scheduled, with no changes or delays, that remains the current plan as we sit here today in the new year.
Indeed, The Athletic’s Evan Drellich followed up on the latest, and got even more definitive word from the league and the players that the current expectation is that everything will proceed as scheduled:
Spring training 2021 is still likely to start on time. Why (and what could change that): https://t.co/1yIqHzod95
— Evan Drellich (@EvanDrellich) January 3, 2021
In statements to The Athletic from the league and the players, it doesn’t quite sound like anyone is bracing for a major negotiation about the timing of the season, even as it’s long been an expectation that such a negotiation would have to occur soon.
First, the league:
“We have announced the dates for the start of Spring Training and the Championship Season,” MLB said in a statement. “As we get closer we will, in consultation with public health authorities, our medical experts, and the Players Association, determine whether any modifications should be considered in light of the current surge in COVID-19 cases and the challenges we faced in 2020 completing a 60-game season in a sport that plays every day.”
Then, the players (emphasis added):
“As we’ve made clear to the league on multiple occasions, we expect Spring Training and the Regular Season to start on time and as scheduled, consistent with our CBA,” the Players Association said in a statement. “The league does not have the authority or legal basis to unilaterally delay or shorten the schedule without Players’ consent. While there will continue to be challenges, our Players have proven they can safely play a season under difficult circumstances, as have the other sports. The Commissioner’s Office has assured us that they have instructed the Clubs to prepare for an on time start.”
That last sentence there is the big one, as it would seem to address my biggest concern in terms of figuring out the timing: players need to know the plan ASAP, since many of them typically travel to Spring Training sites to start ramping up for the season in January. If there was an expectation that Spring Training was going to get bumped back by a month, and thus the season, then it would be important to have that settled before you start seeing the trickle-and-stream of players heading to Arizona and Florida.
But, as Drellich reports, it sounds like here on January 4, there is no plan to make a change. With baseball having been successfully played during the pandemic, and with other sports theoretically showing the same this winter, MLB’s owners would have a much weaker argument now than they did last March to say that games cannot be played right now due to a national emergency, and thus the players have to accept a shorter season (and less pay).
If the season is indeed to be played as normal – and if teams are already expecting that to happen – then you’d have all the more reason to expect certain teams to keep the player spending very tight. Consider that, if Spring Training happens as scheduled, it’ll be without fans in attendance (a significant revenue hit to a team like the Cubs). Moreover, if Opening Day stays on April 1, then at least two months of the regular season is also likely to be played with no fans in some states, and very limited fans in others. Again, for a team like the Cubs, that’s a substantial revenue hit.
The owners have suggested via the media that they’d like to delay the start of the season to accommodate more vaccinations for the players and staff, but the real impact would be in the stands. But the players don’t really have to accept fewer games and less money simply because the owners would like more fans in the stands for a greater chunk of the season – such is the nature of a league that does not have a revenue-sharing system between the owners and the players. (The flip side of that, of course, is that without the protections of revenue-sharing and a payroll floor, owners can rapidly squeeze spending like they have over the last year, and can also treat the luxury tax like a de facto salary cap.)
It might be a situation where the owners realize they don’t have enough leverage to alter the CBA at this time, so they’re accepting that the season is likely to start on the scheduled timeline. Revenue losses will be a part of that, so axing expenses is the route many are taking.
Meanwhile, barring an even more dramatic change in the pandemic – not like things are great right now, yet the plan is still the plan – you can expect the official start of Spring Training in just over a month. That’s wild.