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MLB lockout: Owners have tried to use the calendar for leverage, but time could soon be on players’ side

Last week, Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred canceled the first two series of the regular season after the owners and the MLB Players Association failed to reach a new Collective Bargaining Agreement before a league-imposed deadline. The two sides met Sunday and the MLBPA made a new proposal, but a deal does not appear imminent and more regular season games could be called off this week. At minimum, this marks the first time in league history that the schedule will be compromised by an owner-implemented lockout.

When CBS Sports chronicled the reasons why no deal was reached, a throughline was how the owners created leverage against the players. They instituted the lockout as soon as they could to wall off the possibility of a strike. They waited more than six weeks to make their first proposal to create impatience. They created deadlines to force an artificial sense of urgency. They even, in the eyes of the players, orchestrated a misinformation campaign in an attempt to win last-minute public-relation points.

Jerry Reinsdorf, the owner of the Chicago White Sox and a veteran of labor strife, once said: “A savvy negotiator creates leverage.” An unsavvy negotiator, it reasons, is one who surrenders leverage. In canceling games rather than making a reasonable offer, the owners may have created an opportunity for the players to take back leverage in these negotiations.

If all the other side cares about is money, then it tracks that the best organ to attack is their wallet. The owners have successfully uncoupled their profitability from the quality on-the-field product and from their gate revenue in recent years. What matters more now is the local television deal, and the windfall that comes from the league’s playoff broadcast deal. The union has a chance to apply pressure to both.

While missing more games is not an ideal outcome for the players or the fans, missing a certain number of games could make the owners antsy. As Jameson Taillon, a right-handed pitcher for the New York Yankees, recently tweeted: “Owners actions have made it clear all along that they have a set # of games where they still make profits/get TV money.” That exact number is unknown, but The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal suggested teams may have to issue rebates after missing 25 games.

Players can also make good, or at least, make use of their threat to take the expanded postseason off the table if they weren’t allowed to play 162 games. The league has pushed for a 14-team postseason that would create an additional $100 million in revenue. The union has been more open to a 12-team format that would still create $85 million in new revenue. The owners seemed to prioritize the expanded postseason more than anything else throughout talks, suggesting that the union could still give them the 12-team arrangement … just at a greater cost than it was previously.

What, precisely, the union could exact from the league is anyone’s guess. Perhaps they could secure a full season’s worth of payment, or, at minimum, service time. Players will be sacrificing each with every game missed. The owners know that, and are banking on the losses being too much for the players to stomach. Their hope is almost certainly that the players will flinch and submit before the owners are impacted.

At some point, though, the equation changes. The players will still be missing out, likely at a greater degree than the owners, but the owners too will be suffering losses. When that happens, they’ll have lost part of the leverage that gave them the arrogance to put forth wholly unreasonable offers throughout the past three months.

Former Marlins executive David Samson discussed the MLB lockout’s latest on Monday’s Nothing Personal with David Samson. Listen below:

Leverage tends to dictate who comes ahead in deals. In that respect, the league has played its hand well throughout the process. From a players’ perspective, they have to take the mindset: if games are going to be missed, then make them count.