WITH spring training not far off, Major League Baseball's team owners have their work cut out for them. At a three-day meeting that began yesterday in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., owners of the 28 teams are trying to hatch an agreement for sharing more revenue among the ball clubs, so that big-city teams do not have such an economic advantage over small ones. But that agreement would only set the stage for a much tougher task: negotiating a new labor agreement with players. The owners may also elect a new commissioner of baseball.
The revenue-sharing is seen as critical by small-city clubs such as the Seattle Mariners here, which posted a loss of more than $15 million last year. Where the Mariners are trying to build a successful team on a payroll totaling less than $30 million (slightly more than $1 million per player), the Toronto Blue Jays players take in close to $50 million in salaries.
At a meeting in Illinois earlier this month, owners came one vote shy of the three-fourths margin needed to approve a new deal. The plan would pool money from tickets and local television broadcasts. Local TV is the key area where teams from large cities such as New York and Los Angeles dominate. Large-market teams offered an alternative proposal that garnered only 11 votes. The financial challenges of many teams are compounded by declining revenue from nationwide television broadcasts, which under a new contract are likely to generate only one-half as much revenue per team as the $14 million-a-year during the 1990-93 period.
Even with such a money-sharing deal, ``we've got a long way to go'' to reach a new collective-bargaining agreement with players, says James Dworkin, a Purdue University human-resources expert and author of a book on baseball labor issues.
Owners hope to put a cap on player salaries, which have skyrocketed in the years since players were allowed to sell their services as ``free agents'' to the highest bidder after they had played six years in the major leagues.
``Players are relatively happy with the status quo; it's the owners who are really unhappy,'' Professor Dworkin says. The current labor agreement expired at the end of last year and owners voted to reopen negotiations. An agreement on revenue-sharing would allow all teams to be able to meet a new minimum salary level for all players, which might open the way for an upper limit on salaries.
Many observers say it is unlikely players will agree to such a limit. Dworkin sees four possibilities:
* Owners could call a lockout of players, keeping them from earning salaries.
* Players could choose to strike sometime before or during the season.
* A new agreement could be signed.
* The current labor agreement could be extended, so that the teams would continue playing games during negotiations.