The Baseball Notebook

November 5, 2010 7:59 AM

A Plea For Economic Balance

BaseballNeedsEconomicBalance.jpgMajor league baseball heads toward its winter of free agency and the Hot Stove League is starting to heat up in places like New York, Boston, Chicago and Philadelphia. It's an exciting time, as fans can dream of new potential lineup combinations and the evaluate the changes that actually happen. But in other towns, like Tampa, Oakland, Minneapolis, Milwaukee and Cincinnati, the free agency period can more about looming dread. The fans in those cities talk about what players they can afford to keep and which ones are hopelessly lost. Is this sort of disparity really good for the sport?

Free agency has been a good thing for baseball--not just for the players, who've used their leverage to the best contracts in sports--but at the outset in the 1970s it was good for parity as a whole. More fluid player movement balanced the scales and give teams a quick way to rebuild. When the sport was at or near the top of popularity charts, the franchises were healthy and while certain teams still spent more than others, it wasn't considered a given that a franchise like Minnesota or Oakland that dutifully developed talent, would inevitably lose all but a few pieces. After the strike of 1994 things changed. I'm not an expert, but the trend seems to be that teams in the major markets or places that are great baseball towns (St. Louis, Baltimore) can survive slow periods for baseball, as we had post-1994, or the economy as a whole, as we have right now and still spend. The rest of the teams--which constitute about 2/3 of the league have to make significant cuts in payroll.

Most of the discussion for changing this revolves around a salary cap. I don't have a problem with this, but the biggest problem is the sharing of revenue. There's plenty of money in baseball, it's just all concentrated on a few power centers. You have a middle-class of teams like the Cardinals, Orioles, Braves and Rangers. You have big-budget teams like the Red Sox, Angels, Cubs, Mets, Angels, Phillies and Dodgers--at least when the latter gets its ownership problems resolved. And you have the equivalent of an offshore economy in the Yankees. But baseball wouldn't be as exciting without the franchises that come in below that, and it's detrimental to the sport to leave them in situations where they are at such a pronounced disadvantage. Teams like the Rays can compete for a short period of time--they can even win the World Series, as an other example in the Giants just finished showing. But they can't do what really draws a team close to a city's heart and that's keep that team together for a good 10-year run. The notion of a "Core Four", like Yankee fans have enjoyed with Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, Andy Pettite and Jorge Posada is economically unthinkable in Tampa Bay, Minnesota or Oakland.

And that's bad for the entire game, including the economic powers-that-be. It's for baseball to more equitably share the revenue it generates. Unlike the NFL, baseball relies heavily on local revenues, between radio and the regional sports networks that have become so important in the economics of the game. The big-market teams have made to see that their own success depends on having viable competition in other cities. It hasn't hurt the NFL, who can pit almost any game against the World Series and bury baseball in the ratings. And when it comes to ratings, the Super Bowl isn't dependent on having big-market teams. The Series is, as the woeful Texas-San Francisco numbers showed. Baseball lacks credibility with too many fans--they see it as just being a question of who can put the financial muscle on who, not who truly has the skill to build the best organization. And that skepticism is correct.

So share local revenues and demand accountability. Just as the Yankees and the big-budget teams just below them should share, so should notoriously cheap teams like the Pirates and Marlins be required to ante up and spend the money on improving their product. Competition between baseball franchises should exist on the field, not on the balance sheet--baseball's real competition is for the entertainment dollar with other sports, Hollywood, etc. They won't win that competition with most of the league struggling. If the Yanks and the big-budget teams can't be made to see this, maybe it's time to play hardball. The 2/3 of teams that don't benefit from the current arrangement can just start refusing to allow the visiting teams to set up the TV cameras from their regional sports networks. Something tells me that might make people see the light.

This brings an end to the baseball season for the Notebook. When it comes to evaluating the personnel changes teams make, I prefer to wait until it's all said and done and we have a complete body of work to look at. And there's plenty to talk about right now with college football & the NFL, and college basketball starts on Monday. Thanks to everyone who dropped in these last six months and please stop over at the other arms of the Sports Notebook Family. Baseball will be back in March.

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Dan Flaherty is the editor of the Sports Notebook Family, published through the Real Clear Sports Blog Network, offering daily MLB playoff coverage and game analysis in college football and the NFL. He is the author of The Last New Year's, a book that revisits the historic high points of college football's New Year's Day bowl games.

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