MLB blues: TV black eye?

A strike over contraction terms could delay season, scramble TV schedules

Major League Baseball placed itself at the edge of another labor-relations precipice last week, its announced plans to drop two teams raising the distinct prospect of a delayed 2002 season.

Coming on the heels of a riveting World Series that saw the Arizona Diamondbacks upend the New York Yankees, a labor impasse disrupting next year's regular season would more than squander the fan interest that the dramatic series inspired.

Independent sports consultant Neal Pilson, former head of CBS's sports unit, witnessed the deadening impact the 1990 work stoppage had on the network's national baseball deal. "Frankly, it damaged us for the remainder of our four-year contract," he recalled. "Loss of sponsors and loss of audience made it a losing proposition for CBS. The worse problem we faced was the uncertainty created by that labor stoppage."

A Fox Sports spokesman said simply that that network is "optimistic" that the two sides will resolve the differences between them during the off-season. He declined to confirm a report that Fox's six-year, $2.5 billion MLB deal somehow protects the network from the effects of a work stoppage.

A spokesman for ESPN, which currently has a six-year, $850 million deal with Major League Baseball, said the fallout from contraction was not a "central issue" for the network, which is apparently unfazed by the prospect of a delayed season.

With negotiations on a new agreement between MLB ownership and the players' union in limbo at the moment, the declared contraction strategy only muddled that already charged situation. Now the players' union confronts the loss of 50 jobs on the two teams—most likely, the Minnesota Twins and Montreal Expos. The old pact is set to expire this month.

"They're trying to tell the players, 'We run the show, and we're going to get rid of 50 of your jobs, and we can do this because we are the owners,'" says Lee Lowenfish, sports author and baseball labor-relations scholar. "The baseball owners are a more exclusive club than the U.S. Senate, and they're not elected."

Contraction raises the issue of where players displaced from the two abandoned franchises will play. The options figure to be free agency, likely to be favored by the union, or a dispersal draft, certain to be the owners' solution. The potential for lawsuits would appear to be limitless.

Pilson says contraction has clearly "compounded" the difficulties in baseball's labor talks, and he is among those concerned that the issues won't be settled by April.

Players' union representatives were already suspicious of ownership motives after Commissioner Bud Selig reportedly cut off talks in June.