Major League Baseball is now locking out its players, and given that it’s the offseason, there shouldn’t be much way to notice other than the sudden lack of hot stove activity. The league, though, has gone out of its way to remind everyone online, taking all player-related content off of MLB.com, right down to headshots on roster and stat pages.
It doesn’t have to be this way, as MLB’s website — for all of its flaws — can be considered a news and information site and players’ names, images, and likenesses considered fair use. But it’s definitely a move that’s dictated by lawyers who don’t want even a hint of a challenge on that, and we know this because the NHL did the exact same thing during its lockout nine years ago.
Most of the talk around name, image, and likeness lately has been in the college sports world, but it’s still an important issue for pro sports, including one that’s emerging, and that MLB would love to use going forward: gambling. In fact, baseball already has been.
During this year’s playoffs, we saw the encroachment of gambling content into game broadcasts, with Joe Buck awkwardly telling us that if you logged on to Fox’s betting site, you could get 3-1 odds on Joc Pederson hitting a home run or whatever. This is insidious in its own right, as prop bets like that offer far worse odds for a gambler than straight wagers on the game outcome, resulting in higher profits for Fox or whatever betting partner is getting the business. At the center of it is a labor question that needs to be answered: if players are being used to promote gambling, shouldn’t the players get a taste of the revenue being brought in by the league’s partnerships with bookies?
If that only seems tangential, and like it can be covered under the auspices of other sponsorship deals, consider that betting isn’t just coming to the physical ballpark, too, it’s already there at Nationals Park. As more and more states give the go-ahead to sports gambling, the money involved will only grow, and the players’ whose performance is vital to making the betting enterprise happen should reap benefits from it.
This is part of why the MLBPA should embrace a salary cap (and floor), the best way to ensure that players are locked into getting a set percentage of league revenue, rather than the current system where teams can raise their bottom lines while keeping wages flat. Under the just-expired agreement, the de-facto salary cap known as the Competitive Balance Tax threshold was set at a fixed number years in advance. That should be anathema to the MLBPA as the league opens new revenue streams as often as it can, with gambling front and center.
One solution that might be poetic would be to use gambling revenue to help fund ballplayers’ pensions, already a contentious area in negotiations because about the only thing management likes less than paying money to players is paying money to people not actively working for them. Why poetic? Consider that years ago, commissioner Bowie Kuhn banned Hall of Famers Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle simply for taking celebrity ambassador jobs with casinos that didn’t even involve gambling.
The league’s attitude toward the gaming industry has clearly changed, and baseball now is more than happy to take every last bit of money that it can get out of sportsbooks. Just like the league’s website, it doesn’t work the same without being able to include the players, who should be getting a fair share of the money that they’re helping to bring in. Seems like something everyone should be able to agree on, but considering that management decided to go ahead with a lockout the instant the previous CBA expired, rather than trying any sort of good-faith negotiations leading up to that, don’t bet on it.