A Return for Baseball Would Require a New Debate

Everybody wants a baseball season. Nobody knows quite how that will look amid the coronavirus pandemic. Those are the only certainties for a sport that has an unbroken chain of seasons with at least 100 games stretching back to the 19th century.

But as more and more hopeful hints have emerged this week — from Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, the nation’s leading expert on infectious diseases, and from Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo of New York, who both publicly touted the feasibility of playing in empty ballparks — a distressing backdrop still looms: If teams cannot sell tickets, how much will the players be paid?

“The issue over pay without fans is going to get ugly,” said a top baseball official of one team, who insisted on anonymity to speak candidly about league matters. “It’s very real. Owners will claim they’d lose money by playing without fans if players get their full per-game salaries, and it may be true. They’re going to want a big reduction in pay from players.”

When Major League Baseball and the players’ union agreed on new ground rules for the delayed season on March 26 — the original opening day — they included a stipulation that the sides would “discuss in good faith the economic feasibility of playing games in the absence of spectators or at appropriate substitute neutral sites.”

For the owners, that set up another negotiation on pay structure, in an altered economic landscape. The players’ side has a different interpretation of “economic feasibility,” according to the agent Scott Boras.

“The economics they’re talking about is whether they play or not, not what they pay the players to play,” said Boras, adding: “Owners had every opportunity to say, ‘We will also reduce the rate of your salaries if these conditions exist.’ They didn’t, and the reason they wouldn’t is because players would never accept it; they would never agree to the deal.”

The issue spilled into the public discourse on Wednesday when Cuomo told his brother, Chris, on CNN that he had spoken with the Mets’ chief operating officer, Jeff Wilpon, about playing games without fans, and that Wilpon had mentioned an obstacle.

“Apparently Major League Baseball would have to make a deal with the players, because if you have no one in the stands, then the numbers are going to change, right?” Governor Cuomo said. “The economics are going to change.”

Wilpon declined to comment through a spokesman, but M.L.B. supported him with a statement that said, “Both parties understood that the deal was premised on playing in stadiums with fans, and the agreement makes that clear.”

In a way, this would be a welcome fight, because in order to have it, baseball would need a clear path to returning. That does not yet exist, and it depends largely on the availability of tests, the spread of the coronavirus and authorization from state and local governments.

As things stand, M.L.B. and the union have had no further discussions on the pay structure of a shortened season, because there are too many variables about the conditions.

But the strong feeling from the union is that teams would be obligated to pay the players their regular salaries, prorated to reflect the number of games played. The players have already waived any potential legal claims over additional salary — beyond an initial distribution of $170 million — in the event a season is not played. They made that concession in exchange for a guarantee of service time for a lost season.

But multiple union officials privately dispute the idea that teams would not profit without fans in the stands unless the players take a pay cut. The teams would make less money, to be sure, but they would also have television revenue coming in, and a reduction in expenses related to staging games with fans. And if a regular season is played, a lucrative postseason — the prize for national networks — would follow.

The league estimates that teams get about 40 percent of their revenue from ticketing, parking, concessions and other elements of having fans in attendance — all of which would be lost if games have no spectators. Officials are already bracing for the economic impact, with teams poised to furlough or cut pay for salaried employees by the end of the month, when M.L.B. is expected to suspend the uniform employee contract, citing a national emergency.

Then again, if the game returns, some ballparks may not need to stay empty all season, which would mean another set of complications. What if one state does not authorize mass gatherings, but other states do? How would the sides account for reduced crowds, or having fans only in certain places? And how many fans would come to see, say, the Detroit Tigers play the Baltimore Orioles if the game were held in another city?

With so much unknown about the particulars and the practicality of a season, there is no blueprint to even start talks between the league and the players. But the sides are digging in, behind the scenes, for a potentially awkward confrontation. They just hope to have a reason to fight.

David Waldstein and James Wagner contributed reporting.