Major league baseball owners are hopeful that NFL and NBA labor agreements, including revenue sharing with the players and a salary cap, will add weight to their attempt to sell a similar plan when bargaining talks with their players' union reopen officially on Wednesday.
"I don't know all the details (of the NFL agreement), but conceptually it's clearly the same as what I'll be talking about," Richard Ravitch, president of the owners' Player Relations Committee, said Thursday.
Ravitch said he would definitely use acceptance by NBA and NFL players of a plan designating a percentage of gross revenue for salaries as part of his pitch.
"Baseball is going to be there at some point, and the sooner the better for both the players and the clubs," he said.
Don Fehr, executive director of the players' union, remains unconvinced. Fehr said there is no corollary between baseball and other sports for labor agreements.
"It's simply another agreement that needs to be examined to see if it has any application in a baseball context," Fehr said of the NFL contract. "The fact that the players have agreed to it doesn't tell me if it's good or bad. It has to stand on its own merit, but it doesn't put any pressure on us. I mean, it didn't seem to put any pressure on the NFL when we won free agency in 1976."
NFL players needed another 16 years to achieve modified free agency, and their earnings are far behind baseball, in which the average salary is more than $1 million and the 28 clubs have spent more than $500 million on player signings this winter alone. Ravitch said a revenue partnership would help the club restrict those "suicidal sprees" and anticipate future expenses while also benefiting the union.
"As it is, the middle class is being phased out," Ravitch said. "I mean, 50% of the compensation is going to 13% or 14% of the players. They can't be happy with that."
Fehr, however, remains less happy with the idea of the owners again asking the players to help the owners save them from themselves, and he said there would have to be a "compelling case" for his union to agree to a salary cap.
"We would have to be convinced that there is no other way to address the alleged problem," he said. "Our position has always been that salaries are determined by overall revenue and would adjust automatically if the revenue decreases.
"I mean, people like to talk about the benefit of the NBA salary cap, but there hasn't been a lot of competitive balance under it, and it's my understanding the players are trying to do away with it. They feel they've had it long enough, and it's having a negative affect (on salary growth).
"We're in the process of checking that out. I also want to talk to the football people to see why they agreed to (a cap), and to determine if it has any application in baseball."
Baseball owners voted, 15-13, in December to exercise their re-opener rights rather than wait until the bargaining agreement expires after the 1993 season.
Ravitch has refused to discuss specifics of a plan that is also expected to call for modifications in arbitration and free agency, but he has said that there must be two levels of partnership: a designated percentage of revenue going from clubs to the players as salary, and increased revenue sharing among the clubs. It is uncertain yet how much support he will get from the big-market teams on the latter.
The recently released joint economic study report revealed that the clubs shared only 26% of their 1991 revenue of more than $1.5 billion. Fehr laughed, saying that if there is an inequity between the big and small markets, increased sharing among the clubs is one way to correct it.
"It seems to me that they should take a crack at changing their own rules before they come to the players again and ask them to accept a system that will produce lower salaries," Fehr said. "I mean, that's not the responsibility of the players, but it's the only direction (the owners) always seem to take."
And it's one that can't be challenged through the courts because of baseball's antitrust exemption, which sets it apart from football and basketball.
"That's a major factor in comparing contracts," Fehr said. "Whatever internal rules the clubs have, whatever revenue sharing they do or don't do among themselves, can't be attacked (because of the exemption). Would football have finally reached an agreement without pressure from a federal judge?"
Fehr added that he didn't want to prejudge Ravitch's plan, but that to try to define gross revenue and settle on what percentage of it goes to salaries, so they can try to set up an accounting system under an entirely new concept, would be very difficult.
Ravitch said he is willing to discuss anything that comes under the umbrella of revenue participation.
"The goal is to create identical interest (on the part of the clubs and players) in increasing the size of the pot so that we can stop . . . on each other," Ravitch said.