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As recently as last Friday afternoon, it would have been a completely insane take to predict that the NBA would return before the MLB. Today, MLB owners and players better get their affairs in order — and fast! — if they want an exclusive window for major American team sports.
Leaks about MLB season start plans had been all over the media for quite some time. Last week, super-agent Scott Boras, who doesn’t speak for all players but nonetheless represents a very meaningful constituency of them, wrote an op-ed in the New York Times advocating for the imminent resumption of Spring Training. Then he went on Get Up and proclaimed that MLB players were at very low risk for dire coronavirus consequences. Meanwhile, NBPA head Michele Roberts was speaking on the record about how closed bubbles sounded like “incarceration” and semi-permeable ones didn’t seem worth it.
The turning point with the NBA came Friday evening when Adam Silver held a call with players and said that resuming the sport in a bubble or bubbles was the best strategic course of action, and that the league would power through positive tests. Since then, Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports reported that a group of megastars — LeBron, Anthony Davis, Chris Paul, Kevin Durant, Steph Curry, Giannis, Damian Lillard, Kawhi Leonard, and Russell Westbrook — held their own call to pledge solidarity for a return. Woj later reported at ESPN that NBA owners have a lot of optimism for a safe return.
Meanwhile, MLB owners and players are squabbling about money. Owners plan to propose a 50-50 revenue split which from the outside sounds pretty reasonable given how much money is going to be lost with no ticket sales, concessions, and in-stadium merchandise revenue this year. However, the players think this sounds too much like a salary cap, which owners have proposed and players have resisted for decades, and balked at the proposal before it was even presented to them.
This is functionally unprovable and the NBA would surely deny this if asked directly about it, but for the last month or so the chatter between people In The Know in the sports business has been speculation that the NBA was using MLB as a lead blocker. Conversations went something like this: Adam Silver is way more sensitive to Twitter and the media than Rob Manfred. Manfred will return first and be the meat shield, absorbing all the criticism for a few weeks while ratings nonetheless soar from a sports-starved audience, and then the NBA will come in with its postseason after the return of sports has been normalized.
Not for nothing, MLB could really use that head start. While they remain very strong in regional TV ratings and ticket sales, the sport’s relevance has been waning nationally for 20+ years. Having much or all of the month of July to themselves would’ve introduced many people to a crop of likable young stars. Who knows how much interest would sustain as life returns to normal, but it would be a good sampling period for lapsed and young fans.
Whoever you blame between owners and players — anecdotally, the players are taking a lot more heat right now — they need to get together and figure out the money quickly. If MLB does want to beat the NBA back, Tony Clark and Rob Manfred are going to need to figure it out fast. There’s not much time to waste.