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MLB and the MLBPA have come to a handshake agreement on a new five-year labor deal, and are now still working out final details and drafting documents in advance of a planned signing and formal announcement on Tuesday, according to industry sources. The new deal, as expected, primarily builds on the current, now-expiring pact, with several key refinements. Among them, MLB will begin blood testing for HGH, a marked reversal of course for a union that once fiercely opposed any collection of player blood. But the league last year implemented a blood-based HGH program for the affiliated minor leagues with few operational hiccups, and in August notably drew a positive test by former MLBer Mike Jacobs, helping elevate the issue. Provisions around the first-year entry draft, perhaps the most publicly discussed during negotiations, will change markedly with the elimination of existing draft pick slotting system. It will be replaced with a tax structure that penalizes teams for going over a total sum for draft picks, with the tax to begin at $0.75 for every dollar beyond the threshold. A taxation system also will be implemented on international signings. MLB Commissioner Bud Selig had been particularly keen on creating spending restraints on incoming players that arrived either through the draft or as an overseas free agent. And, of course, the shift of the Astros to the AL and the addition of a second wild card team in each league was announced last week following MLB owners meetings. The new labor deal additionally includes a hike in the minimum player salary from $414,000 in '11 to $480,000 next year, and ultimately to $500,000 per year. With the new pact, covering the '12-16 seasons, MLB will have ensured 21 straight years of labor peace, unprecedented since the creation of the MLBPA in '66 (Eric Fisher, SportsBusiness Journal).
THE WINDS OF CHANGE: The AP's Ronald Blum noted there also are "modifications to baseball's revenue-sharing formula and to its benefit plan" (AP, 11/19). ESPN.com noted the agreement "also will lead to significant changes to the schedule, free agency, the draft, the signing of international players, revenue sharing and the so-called 'competitive balance tax.'" The changes are the "most numerous since the 1997 agreement that came nearly two years after a 7½-month strike that wiped out the 1994 World Series" (ESPN.com, 11/20). In N.Y., Michael Schmidt noted MLB will be the "first of the major North American professional sports to do any type of blood testing for drugs at a league's highest level" (N.Y. TIMES, 11/20). On Long Island, Ken Davidoff noted the agreement "marks a coup for commissioner Bud Selig, who took a great deal of grief earlier in his tenure for the sport's failure to control illegal performance-enhancing drug use." Selig and the union "quietly made this leap, whereas the National Football League has boasted of adding HGH testing but has been unable to actually do so" (NEWSDAY, 11/20).
CREDIT ALL AROUND: In Chicago, Phil Rogers writes the players "will deserve a ton of credit if they really are rolling up their sleeves and giving blood to get" HGH testing done (CHICAGO TRIBUNE, 11/21). NEWSDAY's Davidoff noted in the new CBA, Selig "took steps to mitigate baseball's two most glaring, institutionalized inadequacies." By announcing the "addition of a second wild-card team, Selig helped bridge the huge payroll disparity that still exists." By switching the Astros from the NL Central to the AL West, "creating a balance of 15 teams in each league starting in 2013, the commissioner set in motion hope for schedule equity" (NEWSDAY, 11/20). In N.Y., Joel Sherman wrote the addition of two wild-card teams "is the proper decision because it gives greater advantages to division winners and, particularly, to the teams with the best records in each league." But Sherman writes the format "should be a best-of-three wild-card round rather than the single-game elimination almost certain to be installed" (N.Y. POST, 11/20). YAHOO SPORTS' Jeff Passan wrote, "So much of baseball’s current labor détente, in fact, came from the ’94 strike that the game is beginning to approach the point where the unthinkable becomes a legitimate question: Was losing the ’94 World Series worth everything that came after?" Passan: "Baseball, amazing enough, is the bastion of labor peace in sports. And hopefully the strike to end all strikes really, truly was" (SPORTS.YAHOO.com, 11/18). In Boston, Peter Abraham writes after the "shameful events [of] 1994, the owners and players have gotten it right." With the "added wild cards, new stadiums around the game and compelling division races, it's a healthy sport and we can all celebrate that" (BOSTON GLOBE, 11/21).
NASCAR "couldn't have scripted" its championship finale better, as Tony Stewart won yesterday's Ford 400 to claim the Sprint Cup Series title over Carl Edwards, according to Tim Stephens of the South Florida SUN-SENTINEL. It was the "first time since the point system was implemented in 1975 that a driver came from behind to win the title by winning the final race." Stewart said, "If this doesn't go down as one of the greatest championship battles in history, I don't know what will" (South Florida SUN-SENTINEL, 11/21). In Charlotte, Jim Utter writes NASCAR "certainly got what it wanted -- and needed -- in Sunday's wild, down-to-the-wire championship finale." Utter: "It had the feel of a heavyweight title fight, with just as much hype and plenty of in-ring action" (CHARLOTTE OBSERVER, 11/21). Stewart, who became co-owner of Stewart-Haas Racing in '09, is the "first owner-driver to win the championship since Alan Kulwicki" in '92. In N.Y., Edgar Thompson writes, "The winner-take-all season finale between Stewart and Edwards lived up to its billing" (N.Y. TIMES, 11/21). In West Palm Beach, Dave George: "NASCAR put on a show that may win more new fans than all of Jimmie Johnson's record five straight championships combined" (PALM BEACH POST, 11/21). In Miami, Gary Long writes the one-two finish ended what "even old-timers must acknowledge as the greatest championship duel in the sport's history" (MIAMI HERALD, 11/21). Also in Miami, Greg Cote writes Stewart had one of the "most clutch performances ever in motor sports" (MIAMI HERALD, 11/21). YAHOO SPORTS' Jay Busbee wrote the finale "was one of the finest races in NASCAR history" (SPORTS.YAHOO.com, 11/20). In Jacksonville, Don Coble: "The month-long battle between Carl Edwards and Tony Stewart will be remembered for generations" (FLORIDA TIMES-UNION, 11/21).
SOMETHING TO TALK ABOUT: NASCAR Chair & CEO Brian France at his season-ending news conference on Friday said that he "wants drivers to speak their minds but that there’s a line when comments 'denigrate' the sport." France "wouldn’t talk specifically about the apparent fine on Brad Keselowski for comments he made last week that were critical of fuel injection, but said the sanctioning body decided a couple of years ago to fine drivers for what it considers excessive criticism." NASCAR in the last two years "has apparently fined at least four drivers for negative comments." France said that there "could be other fines that the public doesn’t know about." He said, "Drivers are going to be able to speak their mind and criticize the sport way more than any other sport would allow. However, there has to be some limits, and we thought those limits were being exceeded in the last couple of years because you can’t denigrate the sport." France added that NASCAR "would re-examine its policy of not disclosing the fines" (SCENEDAILY.com, 11/18). Meanwhile, in Orlando, George Diaz noted there "could be more tweaks in the Chase format." There will "definitely be a significant change in restrictor-plate races at Daytona and Talladega," and the sport "will also trash traditional carburetors in favor of a fuel-injection model" (ORLANDO SENTINEL, 11/19).
MLS Commissioner Don Garber said the '11 season "without doubt ... has been the best year in the history of the league," according to Kevin Baxter of the L.A. TIMES. League-wide attendance “is up 7% to 17,872 per game, better than last season's NBA and NHL averages, and leaving MLS behind only" the NFL and MLB among U.S.-based pro leagues. Nearly one-third of MLS' regular-season matches “sold out this season.” Expansion fees “have increased fourfold since 2007, to $40 million, and will go up again before the league adds a 20th franchise, perhaps as early as 2013.” By the end of next season, 15 of the league's 19 teams "will play in soccer-specific stadiums.” FC Dallas and Crew Owner Clark Hunt: “We've really become a nation that loves the sport of soccer." But Baxter reported despite the high attendance and with revenue “at an all-time high, fewer than one-third of the league's teams will make a profit this season.” Even the Galaxy, “with an estimated value of more than $100 million, will finish in the red after paying more than $12 million in salary to three designated players,” MF David Beckham and Fs Landon Donovan and Robbie Keane. Hunt said, "Major League Soccer is a business. And at the end of the day, profitability is one way the main business is measured. I would just say the needle is pointed in the right direction.” Baxter noted there are “still other choppy waters left to navigate.” DC United, one of the league's original members, “has been unable to secure funding for a new stadium or for needed upgrades at its current home, the deteriorating RFK Stadium, and may be forced to move.” A long-planned expansion that would put “a second team in the New York market, has repeatedly hit snags.” And though Garber “prefers to sing the praises of the league's success stories in Portland, Seattle, Vancouver and Philadelphia, four teams -- including winning franchises in Columbus and Dallas -- are drawing fewer than 14,000 fans a game.” Garber said the league is "trying to do everything we can to be profitable in every market." Garber: "But in some cases, owners have decided to make strategic investments which have affected their profitability. And that's required in any emerging sports league" (L.A. TIMES, 11/19).
SIGNS OF PROGRESS: The AP’s Greg Beacham noted MLS’ TV ratings “rose on each of its platforms this season.” MLS will “appear on the new NBC Sports network next year in a lucrative deal, and the Galaxy announced a reported 10-year, $55 million deal with Time Warner Cable Sports’ new network on Friday -- a tenfold increase on its last deal.” Merchandise sales “also are up, driven by the new layer of star players and MLS’ attention to eye-catching design with an international flair” (AP, 11/18). Garber in a Q&A with SI’s Grant Wahl said, “2011 was arguably the best year in the history of the league on all measures: the respect for the league here and abroad, our attendance and TV ratings, our new deal with NBC, a continually improving quality of play, massive popularity in the expansion markets. It's been a very good year.” On FIFA's new English-language rights deal with Fox for the World Cup, Garber said, “It's the beginning of a new era for soccer programming in the United States. Think of the possibilities for how many more shoulder programs we can have and lifestyle programs and MLS behind the scenes and studio shows and highlight shows.” Wahl noted there have been reports that Garber is “about to sell 25 percent of SUM for up to $150 million to Providence Equity Partners” and asks, “What are the chances of that happening -- and that the money could go back into investing in players?” Garber: “We've never confirmed or denied that. But the fact there have been rumors of a private equity firm investing in SUM speaks to the increased value of soccer in North America. And should something like that happen, the distribution would certainly be used to help grow the game. Shortly we'll be able to comment on it more publicly.” On the possibility of a second team in N.Y. Garber said, “We remain focused on having the 20th MLS team in New York. We've got a full-time staff working on stadium projects. We've hired a number of consultants to help us with land-use issues and fast-tracking the process so we can get it done as soon as possible. We believe we have a number of sites that are viable, but it's perhaps the most difficult market in the world to develop a 13-acre sports project. The issue for us won't be finding a good owner. The issue is whether we'll have a stadium site that will work and provide the environment our fans have come to expect in the stadiums we have across MLS” (SI.com, 11/18).
TIME TO MAKE SOME CHANGES: THE SPORTS NETWORK reported MLS officials yesterday “announced changes to next season's competition format … ahead of the MLS Cup final, including rewarding the best finalist with home field advantage in the 2012 MLS Cup.” The league also announced the playoffs “will again include 10 teams, only next season, five teams from each conference will be guaranteed to advance.” This year, five teams from each conference qualified, “but only the top three automatically.” The fourth- and fifth-place finishers “will play a single knockout match in the first round, but the conference semifinals and conference finals will both be two-game, aggregate-goal series.” The Montreal Impact, “who join MLS in 2012 as an expansion team, will play in the Eastern Conference, which will have 10 teams next year while the West will have the same nine.” The league will “use an unbalanced schedule that will see Western teams play 24 games against their own conference” and Eastern teams “will play 25 games against opponents from their division” (THE SPORTS NETWORK, 11/20).
Championship puts exclamation mark on
Beckham's five years in MLS
VICTORY IS SWEET: In L.A., Bill Plaschke writes of last night’s win, it “wasn't Staples Center, these weren't the Lakers, but the energy, angst and eventual joy shared by a part of this community that is bigger than you think was just as real.” AEG Chair Phil Anschutz “has taken huge heat here for being a lousy sports owner." This championship makes one “think perhaps he is tired of running teams like a real estate salesman, perhaps he is finally getting serious about winning, an important hint considering this is the man who might eventually be the majority owner of the Lakers one day.” AEG President & CEO Tim Leiweke said, "When we built (the Home Depot Center) nobody said it would work, nobody thought the league would last, nobody thought anybody would come. This makes me happiest of all the things we've been involved in because we had to work the hardest" (L.A. TIMES, 11/21).
Agents and NBA players are "rapidly coming to terms with the reality that hopes for ending the lockout -- and saving the season -- are bleaker than ever," according the Adrian Wojnarowski of YAHOO SPORTS. Ownership sources said that there is a "consensus among the group to let the players miss another round of checks on Dec. 1 and further test the resolve of the 450-plus players." League officials "aren’t rushing to meet again with the players prior to the Thanksgiving holiday and are waiting on former Players Association executive director Billy Hunter to contact commissioner David Stern about restarting talks again." The owners have "little, to no interest, in negotiating a settlement with the players’ prominent new front man, antitrust attorney David Boies" (SPORTS.YAHOO.com, 11/18). In N.Y., Peter Vecsey noted the players trade union "either just distributed $50,000 checks to each dues-paying player or is about to do it." They already had "received $100,000 per about a month ago" (N.Y. POST, 11/20).
PIERCE WEIGHS IN: Celtics F Paul Pierce said that he "only viewed decertification as an option and denied that he was encouraging fellow players to dissolve the union." Pierce said, "I never told nobody to decertify. That's not something I was (doing). A lot of players around the league have respect for me and they call me in the summer because they know I got an understanding of what's going on with the negotiations and a lot of players asked me about decertification. And all I did was bring the information to them. I didn't push it one way or another." Pierce added, "I hope it doesn't go through full litigation but that's the route the players have chosen and I am sticking with that route" (BOSTON GLOBE, 11/19). Pierce also said, "The agents were trying to push this for months. It came to a point with the whole fiasco with [Lakers G and NBPA President Derek Fisher] and Billy. I didn’t know the ins and outs of that, nor did I ask (Fisher and Hunter) about that or even think that it was even true." He added, "A lot of players saw that and were frustrated just seeing that stuff at the top was going on. Then they started asking me what was going on. All I did was I had an opportunity to talk to a lawyer a lot about decertification. And then I offered it to the players who wanted to hear what the guy had to say." Pierce said he is unsure whether "decertification is the right move or sitting at the table is the right move." He said, "We weren’t getting nowhere at the negotiation table. The players felt like they were giving, giving, giving while the owners were taking all the concessions." Pierce also noted decertification "is still a possibility" (SPORTS.YAHOO.com, 11/20).
ON ICE: Former NBPA Exec Dir Charles Grantham said of the failed negotiations, "At a certain point, it became emotional and it kind of got off the track, while they were close to a deal. They should’ve made one." Of the comparisons to the NHL's '04-05 season, lost to a labor dispute, Grantham said, "Don’t confuse resolve with good judgment. Hockey players had good resolve. No one can say how strong the kids were for standing up for what they believed in, but they made the wrong judgment. You’ve got to make the right judgment here. And once the fight is over, you get back to work and you live another day" (WASHINGTON POST, 11/19).
Some pundits think Stern is panicked and
is incapable of bringing two sides together
THOUGHTS ON KESSLER: In L.A., Lance Pugmire wrote for a "quarter-century NBA Commissioner David Stern has faced the same opponent at the negotiating table: players' attorney Jeffrey Kessler." Stern recently called Kessler "the single most divisive force in our negotiations." Pugmire noted Kessler "made his reputation by handling complex antitrust and sports law cases and also teaches at Columbia Law School. Kessler said that the NBA labor dispute is easy to resolve." This summer, he "helped broker a new labor deal for" the NFL players, and years ago "helped NFL players establish a salary cap and free-agency system." Additionally, he has "worked on behalf of athletes in Major League Soccer, Arena Football, women's tennis and pro hockey." Kessler said, "I've negotiated more (labor) deals in sports than anyone else over the last 20 years." He added, "At the end of the day, it's about getting a resolution, not adversity. I hope we can get together and resolve this, so fans can have basketball and we can work together growing this game." Asked whether he thinks he "won" the NFL labor battle, Kessler said, "The players got a very fair deal. I get great satisfaction from a fair deal" (L.A. TIMES, 11/19). GRANTLAND.com's Simmons wrote the agents "could never act more selfishly than Kessler, who waited his whole career for the right antitrust suit and finally found his patsy." Simmons wrote one of the "world's leading experts in antitrust law is mobilizing NBA players towards a potentially historic antitrust suit that could wipe away multiple (repeat: multiple) seasons. You don't see anything shady there?" (GRANTLAND.com, 11/18).
WHAT ABOUT THE COACHES? NBA Coaches Association Exec Dir Michael Goldberg in an open letter to the players wrote, "Let the parties have the courage to make a deal, even if it requires taking some risks and accepting the unpalatable for the short term." Goldberg added, "Partial or lost seasons are a huge mistake and a blow to any sport that requires years of painful business rebuilding to get back on track. We all know this and know that damage has already taken place" (NYTIMES.com, 11/20). In N.Y., Mitch Lawrence notes coaches "have to be getting increasingly nervous about having the entire NBA season go up in smoke." Goldberg said that he "did not write the letter to represent the views of the 30 head coaches or the numerous assistants coaches, but only those of himself" (N.Y. DAILY NEWS, 11/21).
AROUND THE RIM: YAHOO SPORTS' Wojnarowski reported Turkish club Besiktas "is engaged in serious talks with Kevin Love and Luol Deng about joining point guard Deron Williams" in the Turkish Basketball League. Sources said that Deng’s reps "have traded contract proposals with Besiktas." The parties are "working on insurance proposals to protect the remaining $42 million on his Chicago Bulls contract." Deng's "premiums are expected to cost $50,000 a month." Sources said that Besiktas also has "reached out to Chicago Bulls forward Carlos Boozer." Sources also said that Celtics G Rajon Rondo and Thunder C Kendrick Perkins "have been discussing the possibility of playing together overseas, and have had representatives inquiring on the possibilities" (SPORTS.YAHOO.com, 11/18). Rockets G Goran Dragic "signed to play in Spain with Caja Laboral on Sunday." Additionally, Rockets F Chase Budinger's agent indicated that he is "close to a deal with Lokomotiv Kuban in Russia" (CHRON.com, 11/20).
EXHIBITION ROUNDUP: In Boston, Gary Washburn notes the "crowd at Lavietes Pavilion behaved as if last night would be the final opportunity to watch NBA players in an organized game for months, perhaps even a year." There is an "extreme level of uncertainty and pessimism as the NBA nears the beginning of what appears to be an unavoidable abyss" (BOSTON GLOBE, 11/21). Rondo Saturday hosted a charity game at Harvard Univ., and said, "Unless you're in the meeting, you hear different things. The people that are in the meeting, they know what's going on. Tonight was excellent. It was a great turnout. It means a lot that the guys showed up. ... Right now I think we're united. These [types] of games are going to help us" (BOSTON GLOBE, 11/19). Meanwhile, in Houston, Jonathan Feigen reports Bulls G John Lucas hosted a charity game yesterday before 5,000 fans and notes there was "no lack of highlights." But for the players, there was "no hiding that they played knowing there was someplace they'd rather be, and with little hope they would return there soon." Bulls G Derrick Rose said, "I'm not thinking negative. I'm behind my veterans. Whatever they chose, whatever they decided, I'm behind them 100 percent" (HOUSTON CHRONICLE, 11/21).