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Volume 23 No. 17

Labor and Agents

On its ongoing CBA talks, the MLB Players Association aims to fix a free-agency system that the union says is broken for players, MLBPA General Counsel Ian Penny said before the annual meeting of the Sports Lawyers Association.

“Fundamentally there’s a sense the system is not working properly,” Penny said during the union panel of the SLA, which was held in Phoenix this year.

“It’s not in a good state,” Penny said. “It’s not just my opinion, it’s the opinion that is probably held by the people who work at the union, the agents who work with the players, the players themselves.” 

The CBA expires on Dec. 1, 2021, and usually the two sides begin meeting the year it ends. But in March of this year, the MLBPA and MLB announced they would begin collective bargaining two years early. The announcement comes after two free-agent markets which were slow and left players unsigned or accepting shorter deals.

MLBPA General Counsel Ian Penny noted trends that teams are not spending money and are talking about 10-year rebuilding efforts.
Photo: getty images
MLBPA General Counsel Ian Penny noted trends that teams are not spending money and are talking about 10-year rebuilding efforts.
Photo: getty images
MLBPA General Counsel Ian Penny noted trends that teams are not spending money and are talking about 10-year rebuilding efforts.
Photo: getty images

“There are 20 different levers you can push to try to affect the system,” Penny said. “There are lots of creative ways we can get the system to a state we are comfortable with. We hope to be exploring those sooner than later. But there are many ways to get back to what we felt was a healthy system.”

Asked by SBJ Publisher and Executive Editor Abraham Madkour, who was moderating the panel, about a salary minimum or floor, Penny acknowledged that would be one of the mechanisms that could be used. But he said, “Salary floors don’t usually come for free.”

MLB is the only sport without a salary cap and historically the players have resisted overtures by the owners to put in a club minimum spend requirement, as that is often tied to a ceiling on what teams can spend on the top end.

Patrick Houlihan, MLB senior vice president and deputy general counsel, labor relations, spoke on the SLA panel of league general counsels prior to Penny and said he would not agree with a characterization that the free-agent market was soft for players.

“You have two players getting guaranteed contracts of $300 million,” Houlihan said, referring to outfielder Bryce Harper’s 13-year, $330 million deal with the Phillies and third baseman Manny Machado’s 10-year, $300 million deal to join the Padres. “I could certainly cite the numbers about the amount of guaranteed dollars being awarded in the offseason being one of the most in history.”

But Penny pointed to other trends — of teams not spending money and looking at longer rebuilds. “The scary thing for us is when you hear GMs … talk about 10-year rebuilds,” Penny said. “I mean we are in the age of ‘Fortnite.’ What 14-year-old kid wants to hear about a team getting good in 10 years? That’s crazy.”

NHL CBA OPT OUT: The NHL and NHL Players’ Association are in ongoing discussions leading up to each side’s decision in September on whether they will serve notice that they are opting out of the collective-bargaining agreement early.

The NHL has until Sept. 1 and the NHLPA has until Sept. 15 to notify the other side on whether they want the deal to end on Sept. 15, 2020. If neither side gives notice, the CBA will expire on Sept. 15, 2022.

“Discussions have been constructive and cordial,” said Michael Gold, NHL senior vice president and deputy general counsel, adding that he was deferring to the public statements of NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman and Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly.

Steve Fehr, NHLPA special counsel, said it was true that talks have been cordial. “I was in those meetings and … nobody cursed,” Fehr said. “What they were not, so far, is detailed.”

Fehr said he expects both sides to have more detailed discussions over the summer.

Liz Mullen can be reached at lmullen@sportsbusinessjournal.com. Follow her on Twitter @SBJLizMullen.