“Super agent” Scott Boras represents a league-leading 71 athletes who belong to the Major League Baseball Players’ Association. In 2019 alone, Boras’ corporation managed $2.3 billion worth of contracts for their clients and now he’s raising his voice in support of the players’ union salary demands during 2020 season negotiations with the league. At 5% commission, his payday is arguably what would align him with the MLBPA rather than the league and club ownership, despite it being the latter’s climbing value and revenue that make record-breaking contracts possible.
Boras has been notorious for his negotiation tactics since the 80s. He’s been labeled as straight-edged, hostile, and aggressive (or “innovative” by sympathisers), and probably has more haters than homies, so to speak. Think about the way an agitator affects a team: you love him if he’s on your team, but you hate him if he’s not.
Think about the way an agitator affects a team: you love him if he’s on your team, but you hate him if he’s not.
Boras has negotiated on behalf of many of the league’s biggest stars and is responsible for inflating salaries all over the league. Even more influential have been his rule-bending antics that have led to significant policy changes within the league and the players’ union, and continue to encourage the high-rolling culture in Major League Baseball that would delight even Jerry Maguire.
Agitator or not, his influence over Major League Baseball can’t be overstated, so let’s discover how he’s become the kingpin that he is.
Know the rules to break them
Forbes currently ranks Scott Boras as the second most powerful sports agent in the world for his estimated $2.3 billion in existing contracts
How does an agent gain power in a league where he neither plays, manages, nor owns? By knowing league policies better than the league itself and being gutsy enough to use them, that’s how. Forbes currently ranks Scott Boras as the second most powerful sports agent in the world for his estimated $2.3 billion in existing contracts, in addition to negotiating some of the most valuable deals in sports history. His negotiation style has changed MLB contracts policy for good. Since 1996, league leadership have implemented at least three rule changes in direct response to his actions:
Draft class action
Arguably the least flashy but most influential move spurred on by Boras came out of the 1996 draft class, after one of his clients was drafted and his team declined to offer a contract after fifteen days. At that time, the CBA included a clause that required teams to make an offer to their draftees within fifteen days of the draft or forfeit their rights to them. The clause was buried so deep that teams never adhered to it and regularly negotiated with players beyond the cutoff.
Boras, the cunning agent that he is, quickly filed a grievance on behalf of one player and won free agency for him and four other clients. Four first-round picks that reached free agency in the weeks following the draft ended up netting over $30 million in contracts as a result of his clever interpretation of draft regulations. The league closed the loophole in time for the 1997 draft, in which Boras challenged the league’s process again.
Go north, young man
Boras Corporation client J.D. Drew took advantage of another draft loophole in ’97. Drew was the number one prospect in the draft, coming off college baseball’s first 30 HR/30 stolen base season. Boras knew teams were hungry for talent and tried to get Drew declared a free agent and score a huge contract, just like he did for draftees in 1996. The Philadelphia Phillies selected Drew second overall and Boras demanded the team offer an enormous $10 million signing bonus before Drew would sign. When the Phillies came back with a $2.1 million offer, Drew signed on to play for the independent St. Paul Saints of the Northern League, which Boras argued was professional and thus classified Drew as a free agent.
He re-entered the draft in 1998 and signed with the St. Louis Cardinals for almost $9 million, more than triple the best offer he received from the Phillies the year before.
Once the open negotiations began with other MLB organisations, the league filed a grievance against the proceedings and MLB’s executive council barred Drew from free agency. He re-entered the draft in 1998 and signed with the St. Louis Cardinals for almost $9 million, more than triple the best offer he received from the Phillies the year before.
- After the J.D. Drew saga and a similar Boras escapade with catcher Jason Varitek in 1994, MLB altered further rules after the 1997 season to stipulate that a draft-eligible player is any first-year player in relation to the MLB pipeline rather than professional baseball as a whole, excluding international free agents. North American players who have played in independent leagues are still required to enter the draft in order for teams to exercise their negotiation rights.
In 2000, Landon Powell was a top-ranked high school prospect with one year of school remaining. Under the direction of Boras, Powell left school and completed his equivalency diploma for early graduation prior to his final year of high school and secretly declared himself draft eligible. Teams didn’t think he would be eligible until the following year and had no reason to select him, so they didn’t. Draft rules at the time stated that any player in the draft pool who went undrafted would be designated as a non-drafted free agent and could negotiate with teams of their choice, outside of MLB introductory contract guidelines. Boras then turned up the heat on salary negotiations.
- MLB closed the loophole shortly after and now requires players who drop out of high school to wait one year to become draft eligible and complete their equivalency once they turn eighteen.
Powell and Boras were interrupted by the league who forced negotiations to finish by August to limit Boras’ manipulation of league rules. No team was willing to sign Powell at his desired rate and he went on to play college ball at North Carolina. He fired Boras and was drafted and signed by Oakland in 2005, represented by agent Mark Pieper.
In terms of influence, Boras’ negotiating style has led to more league and union legislation than any other outside party. It’s probably no mistake that his attempts at deception to raise his clients’ contract values have led to draft reform that not only pushed owners to spend more on young talent but has actually shifted how clubs generally spend money; much of that cash ends up making its way to him.
All roads lead to the bank
In 1998, San Diego Padres owner John Moores remarked that the contract numbers Boras wanted would be “detrimental to the game” and would “drive up ticket prices around America.” Unsurprisingly, Moores proved to be prophetic.
Boras continues to force the hand of clubs into spending more on players, which has increased the perception that players are star-calibre or, in some markets, at least worth watching. Teams around the league have experienced higher fan turnout to watch these sought-after players and have invested in ballpark infrastructure and amenities to align the expectations of fans between top-rated players and venue experience.
Between 2006 and 2020, player salaries have risen by an average of 30% from $3.1m to $4.4m, while the average ticket price has risen 33% from $22.21 to $33. As those price tags increase, the Yankees, Dodgers, Mariners, and Cubs alone have invested a mind-boggling $2.5 billion in stadium upgrades since 2009.
For Boras, he’s been outspoken against the league and team owners for taking on expenses and complaining about ballooning player salaries, but it’s at least partially his own doing, having orchestrated many of the newsworthy contracts in recent decades. The realities of 2020 have presented owners with fewer opportunities to balance their expenses with gate revenue: every home game missed nets teams an average loss of $640 000. All of a sudden keeping up with extravagant player contracts and state-of-the-art facilities upgrades don’t fit in very many teams’ budgets.
2020 MLB-MLBPA negotiations
Arguing at the table
Back in March when the sides were first negotiating, the league’s offer was a proportional salary structure that would pay players their regular per-game rate based on their full salary, regardless of the number of games played and with room to expand into the postseason. The union agreed and the point seemed to be resolved.
Then in May, the league went back on the agreement and suggested season models that in one would see players’ per-game salaries cut based on the size of their contract, with higher-earning players losing over 60% of their season’s wages, and another that would cut every player’s per-game salary by 30%. The players’ union, according to The Athletic, now refuses to negotiate against itself on salary, since they claim to have struck an agreement already.
If Boras was at the negotiating table for 2020, he’d likely side with the players’ union. On the 28th of May he circulated an email to each of his 71 major league clients encouraging them to stand strong in their salary demands and to reject a bailout for organisations feeling stretched by the times:
“Owners now want players to take additional pay cuts to help them pay these loans. They want a bailout. They are not offering players a share of the stadiums, ballpark villages or the club itself, even though salary reductions would help owners pay for these valuable franchise assets. These billionaires want the money for free. No bank would do that. Banks demand loans be repaid with interest. Players should be entitled to the same respect.”
But in a conversation about earning and spending billions, the owners don’t require sympathy, and the players making seven, eight, and nine figures in their contracts probably don’t either.
But in a conversation about earning and spending billions, the owners don’t require sympathy, and the players making seven, eight, and nine figures in their contracts probably don’t either. The same owners are now using the 2020 season negotiations to claim their financing arrangements prevent them from, in the eyes of the union, fairly compensating their players whose play draws the crowds that pay owners in the first place. But who’s to say that paying players more is fair or sustainable for the game?
All of this interference could be just a preview of what the 2021 CBA talks will entail. Without knowing what happens behind closed doors, his sticking point appears to be the disparity between owners and players. While clubs are investing hundreds of millions of dollars in their ballparks, the players neither have a share in that increasing value, nor do their salaries increase alongside profit. Any Boras client that stands to lose out on additional pay also represents lost commission for the Boras Corporation.
The Boras method unapologetically makes talented players rich, rich players richer, and forces the league to reckon with exploitable policies.
The Boras method unapologetically makes talented players rich, rich players richer, and forces the league to reckon with exploitable policies. He might have even been making billionaire owners richer overall, if not for the events of 2020. When Scott Boras plays, it’s hard to know who the winners will be, but inevitably the question still remains: would the game look the way it does now without him? Probably not.