Thousands of fans sat on pins and needles as negotiators met late into the night trying to avert the ninth work stoppage in baseball history.
And they succeeded. “Who succeeded?” you ask. The owners? The players? Neither? Or both?
In my opinion, there were only two clear winners in this negotiation – the fans and the game itself. For everyone else, only time will tell if a) the owners achieved a more competitive balance and put a bit of a lid on players’ salaries, and/or b) the players staved off a drastic flattening of their superstars’ salaries and kept a significant number of jobs.
Before I go further, though, I must note that I was not involved in any way in these negotiations. So I have no inside knowledge of what occurred other than what I read in the press.
But it’s quite clear what happened negotiation-wise. Let’s analyze it.
First, this was a classic competitive negotiation. Neither side trusted the other due to their acrimonious history and strained relationships. Zero-sum financial issues also abounded – meaning, for example, one dollar more for the players’ side was perceived to mean one dollar less in owners’ pockets.
And highly competitive individuals knocked heads against other highly competitive individuals, many of whom had healthy egos and a strong desire to “win” and beat the other side.
Second, leverage dominated these negotiations. Rhetoric notwithstanding, both sides really needed a deal. And neither appeared willing to risk another strike and the devastation likely to occur in its aftermath. After all, baseball generated $3.5 billion in revenue in 2001, and players’ salaries averaged $2.38 million. These are not insignificant sums at risk.
Wait a second, you might say. This is easy enough to state after they settled. Isn’t this the ultimate Monday morning quarterbacking?
Yes, except for one overriding leverage-related fact: Baseball attendance still has not fully recovered from the players’ 232-day 1994 strike and the first cancellation of the World Series in 90 years. This was the real leverage pushing both sides to a deal, and these cards were in the hands of the fans. What do I mean?
The fans, loudly and increasingly as the strike date approached, voiced their opinion that a 2002 baseball strike would drive them away in droves. This alternative to an agreement – and the obvious damage to the owners and players that would result from it – proved extraordinarily powerful.
Philadelphia Phillies Manager Larry Bowa perhaps stated this best. As someone who has lived through all eight work stoppages as a player, coach and manager, he said, “There’s definitely public pressure (to get a deal done) – more than I’ve ever seen.”
Texas Rangers pitcher Jeff Zimmerman also put this in stark terms, stating “We’ve lost enough fans over the last seven, eight years. We can’t afford to lose any more.” This was the big reason the players’ finally made significant concessions.
The third critical element in this negotiation? The owners – and especially commissioner Bud Selig – engineered an effective public relations effort that largely turned the public against the players and helped them sympathize with the owners.
Of course, this is relative. I’m not suggesting that the public largely agreed with the owners. I don’t know if this is true or not. But I do know that public opinion, in these negotiations, appeared more sympathetic to the owners than the players.
This form of objective criteria, possible loss of reputation and fan support, put pressure on the players to compromise. And they did.
Finally, both sides used overt agenda-control tactics to attempt to gain the strategic advantage. The players, for instance, set a strike date of Aug. 30 in order to create a sense of urgency and ratchet up the pressure.
It did. It is no coincidence that concessions on both sides increased as the strike date approached. Nor is it a coincidence that the parties literally reached an agreement just a few hours before the deadline.
I don’t know if this agreement will get baseball back on track long-term. But it did keep them on the field.
And for that, we can thank the fans for successfully pressuring both sides to sign on the dotted line.
Published September 6, 2002 The Business Journal