Squabbling threatens reopening of MLB and the EPL

The German Bundesliga, one of the world’s greatest sports league, will resume playing soccer this weekend. The games will take place behind closed doors.

The English Premier League, an even greater sports league, has been cleared by the government to resume in early June, assuming certain conditions are met. But the matches will have to be played not only behind closed doors, but at neutral venues.

Unfortunately, EPL clubs can’t agree on how to proceed, given the neutral site requirement. Europe’s governing soccer body has given them, and the rest of Europe, until May 25 to decide what to do about the remainder of the season.

If the EPL reopens, its matches must be completed by early August, so as not to spill over into next year’s European calendar. Unless the EPL can start up in early June, it’s difficult to see how it can finish by the beginning of August.

Why is the government insisting on neutral venues? As far as I know, the German government isn’t.

The rationale in England seems to be that if matches are played at home venues, supporters will congregate before and after matches, thus creating the risk of mass infection. I understand the concern.

To take an extreme example, Liverpool is closing in its first EPL crown and first top tier crown since 1990. Imagine that the club clinches the title at home. Fans would flock to the stadium, Anfield, by the thousands even if not allowed inside. The police would be placed in an untenable position.

On the other hand, my time in Liverpool tells me that fans will try to congregate en masse if the team clinches the title anywhere in England or, indeed, the world.

Why are some clubs resisting neutral venues? Because those trying to avoid finishing in the bottom three (and thus being demoted to a lower division next year) want a home field advantage.

Not all of the home field advantage derives from having supporters in the stands. Some of it derives from familiar surroundings — sleeping at home, no long bus ride, etc.

Teams that are currently just above the bottom three might want to scuttle the rest of the season. In that scenario, they would avoid relegation by default. (Considerations similar to those discussed in the last few paragraphs may also apply to teams battling to finish high enough to qualify for various European competitions.)

I hope the EPL can resume notwithstanding the selfish concerns of certain clubs. One compromise idea is to skip relegation for a season. But this would penalize teams from the second tier that are in line for promotion, unless the EPL expands its number of teams on a one-time basis next year.

Speaking of selfishness and compromise brings us to major league baseball. MLB should be in a position to start its regular season by early July, following a few weeks of “spring training.”

However, the owners and players can’t agree on how to split the diminished revenue the abbreviated season would produce. The owners want a fifty-fifty split, which seems fair on its face but would, in the view of the players, impose a de facto salary cap — albeit just for one year.

The players want to be paid their negotiated salaries on a pro rata basis. They say the owners agreed to this in March.

The owners say the agreement was to pay pro rata only to the extent that revenue from fan attendance is available. Because much, if not all, of an abbreviated season will be played behind closed doors, there will be little or no revenue from fans.

I walked away from baseball when the owners and players couldn’t agree on a contract in 1994. It took me nearly two decades to return, and even then as a far less dedicated fan.

Few fans were as unforgiving as I was. However, that wasn’t in the context of a pandemic, mass unemployment, and a likely depression.

That’s the context now. Many fans are unlikely to forgive baseball for a long time if billionaire owners and millionaire players can’t agree to save half of this season because they are squabbling over money during a depression.

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