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The NBA is returning before MLB

Adam Silver’s NBA is showing Rob Manfred how a real commissioner does his job.

NBA: Brooklyn Nets at Los Angeles Lakers Richard Mackson-USA TODAY Sports

As Major League Baseball owners continue to present essentially the same, repackaged demands to pay players just a third of their salaries for a shortened 2020 season, this week the National Basketball Association released its own agreement with players for resumption of its season. The NBA will have its top 22 teams go to Florida for a sort of “bubble league”:

The NBA is expected to have about 1,600 people check into their Disney bubble around July 7, regular-season games would restart July 31, followed by the playoffs and the NBA Finals, which could drag into mid-October. According to ESPN, NBA teams will be housed in three different hotels on Disney property.

The NBA has essentially resolved many of the issues which Major League Baseball seemed reluctant to address. For example:

Unlike MLB’s proposal, the NBA provided for daily COVID-19 testing and a quarantine protocol of seven days for any player who tests positive.

Other safety protocols will include the league allowing a maximum of 1,600 people on site and the requirement that players stay on the property, according to Charania. On Monday he reported that if a player leaves, he will be subject to at least a 10-day quarantine upon his return and must show two negative COVID-19 tests before being allowed to play again.

The games won’t be played with fans in attendance, and each player will be allowed three family members after the first round of the playoffs. NBA Commissioner Adam Silver has also provided additional systems for players and coaches with health issues, including suspending marijuana testing. And the league and union have agreed to a prorated salary structure based on the number of games played by each team. In other words, players on eliminated teams won’t be played, but they also won’t risk COVID exposure. The more teams play, and the farther they advance - and the more risk they assume - the more they will be paid. This is an approach that makes a lot of sense, and is also an awful lot like the prorated salary structure the MLBPA thought was part of the March 26 agreement, and which MLB is attempting to abandon.

How different were these negotiations? According to NBC Sports, players on the Minnesota Timberwolves stand to lose the most in salary from the COVID stoppage of any team - at 19% of their salary. On the other hand, MLB is insistent that players take a cut of, essentially, 67% of their salary. Even in May 2020, the NBA only cut players’ salaries by 25%, a far cry from MLB’s plan.

Granted, the NBA’s plan is not perfect. There are very real questions about the NBA’s ability to ensure player safety, particularly given the league’s desire to play a full season starting in December even where this season wouldn’t end until October. That said, even after the NBPA voted against a December 1 start date for next season, the NBA agreed to table that issue and move forward with the agreement for completing the current campaign. In other words, what we’ve seen from the NBA and NBPA is the sort of good faith negotiation that Major League Baseball seems not to care about.

What makes the contrast between how the NBA and MLB approached negotiations with their respective players’ unions particularly striking is how similar the two leagues are economically. In 2019, the NBA generated $8.76 billion in revenue, whereas MLB generated $10.7 billion in revenue. The average NBA team is worth $1.9 billion; the average MLB team is worth $1.85 billion. The average NBA salary is just under $6.4 million; the average MLB salary is just under $4.4 million. Major League Baseball teams have more players (26) than NBA teams do (15), but the percentage of revenue devoted to player payroll is remarkably similar; NBA players are guaranteed between 49% and 51% of total Basketball-Related Income by their collective bargaining agreement, whereas MLB teams are spending about 54% of their disclosed income on player salaries. (It should be noted, however, that unlike the NBA, MLB teams exclude several revenue streams from disclosure to players, and it’s therefore likely that they are actually paying a lower percentage in player payroll.)

It’s also worth noting that the NBA took a very different approach to negotiating with players than MLB did, as ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne writes:

Silver has had weekly calls with executive committee members [Chris] Paul, Toronto Raptors guard Kyle Lowry and Dallas Mavericks center Dwight Powell; another weekly call with the league’s general managers and team presidents; and biweekly calls with the 30 owners. . . . In Silver’s NBA, the players are largely treated as business partners, with Paul and Roberts acting as their lead negotiators. That works, observers say, because Paul and [NBPA head Michele] Roberts spend so much time canvassing players and building consensus among their ranks.

Unlike MLB, which has kept its finances closed, Silver and NBA owners made a point of attempting to make joint decisions.

To build trust between players and the league, Silver joined a conference call with the full union membership in May. For nearly an hour, he answered players’ questions about the challenges of resuming the season, future economic impact on the league and player salaries, the risks of playing at home practice facilities versus a single-site campus. He told them that they were part of any decisions that were made, same as the owners he represented.

“I just really want to stress that notion about collectivity,” Silver told the players. “Anything we’re doing is modifying the collective bargaining agreement. So both legally and in terms of our partnership, we’re not going to make any decisions that aren’t joint.”

All of this is to say that it’s really quite baffling the approach MLB is taking to these negotiations. MLB could be taking the NBA’s approach, but it’s hard to imagine Rob Manfred taking questions for an hour from the MLBPA’s rank-and-file membership about the economics of MLB.

But here’s what’s most interesting: both Silver and Manfred are labor lawyers with prestigious honors and careers predating their professional sports experience. But wheras Silver has made his name for negotiating deals through relationship-building and amicable partnerships, Manfred is known as a hardliner who views collective bargaining as a zero-sum game. The two leagues are on accordingly divergent trajectories: even as NBA player salaries have reached an all-time high under Silver, the NBA has never been so profitable and is in an undeniable new Golden Age. Meanwhile, Rob Manfred is killing baseball to maximize short-term profits. The NBA’s return, whilst MLB remains mired in a crisis of its own creation, is less a statement of their present than it is a sign of their very different futures.