Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Getting the bully's back

Baseball Prospectus' Joe Sheehan came out swinging today against MLB's arcane slotting system for the amateur draft (subscribers only, unfortunately). Key quote:

The draft is a broken system, one in which Major League Baseball openly and unashamedly restricts the career options of hundreds of young men in order to save itself millions of dollars each year, and everyone nods and smiles. We accept the concept of a draft in sports because it has largely been sold as a mechanism for increasing competitive balance—the worst teams get the highest picks. In fact, drafting high and drafting well are completely different things, as any fan of the Pirates—or, at the other end of the spectrum, the Braves—could tell you. That the draft may help competitive balance in a league is a tertiary factor in its existence. What a draft actually does is keep teams from competing for the services of the best talent on the market, and keeps that talent from having any options when it comes to choosing their employer for their prime earning years. It’s a beautiful system…as long as you’re not a supremely talented baseball player trying to have a career.

That about sums up my opinion on the draft and slotting system itself, but I actually want to apply a broader question here: Why are American sports fans, who are prone to sympathizing with labor concerns in just about every walk of life, so pro-owner when it comes to athletics?

It bears mentioning that the average fan wouldn't perceive his or her knee-jerk opinion on drafts or salary caps as being pro-ownership; instead, they'll usually perceive it as a pro-fan, because they're gullible enough to swallow the tired line about escalating player salaries driving rising ticket prices.

Just in case you actually feel the above to be true, consider the following syllogism:

A) The Florida Marlins have a team payroll of $21 million this season. That is less than the team will receive in revenue sharing, general fund, and local television contract revenues; B) Ticket prices are set as to offset player salaries; thus, C) The Florida Marlins are not charging for tickets this season.

I realize I'm being a little ridiculous there, but the belief that owners — in an effort to fade the incorrigible greed of players — reluctantly pass on the cost to the hard-working fan is even more ridiculous. In fact, it's the converse that's true: Player salaries have exploded because owners, in response to the sport's popularity, have continued to charge as much as they reasonably could for tickets, and the people who were actually attracting the fans decided they wanted in on the action.

This is not meant to demonize owners: If a product has value to consumers, the producers of that product should derive as much economic benefit as possible from producing it. When fans are unwilling to pay the freight to attend a game, the prices will either plateau or drop. But since that's not happening — baseball is enjoying unprecedented attendance levels these days — expect the prices to continue rising. And, in turn, expect the players to look at the massive revenues produced by baseball, and expect a commensurate increase in wages.

So why are fans still so reflexively anti-player/pro-ownership? I think I've narrowed it down to two possible answers (they are not necessarily exclusive of each other):

1) The media is generally pro-ownership thanks to the pro-authority bias that exists in all forms of media.
This may sound like the same old sports writer baiting from me, but I actually don't even feel a pro-authority bias is worth condemning, because it's so goddamn inevitable. Local beat writers have a much easier time forming relationships with administrators who will be in place for much longer periods of time than the players on the field. Plus, players and writers make for natural adversaries, since writers are often asked to be critical of bad performances and most athletes handle criticism like pre-adolescents. Ownership/management has a much bigger motivation than athletes to maintain a healthy relationship with the media, since it's only the former that really has to concern itself with a bigger picture that involves ticket sales, television coverage and a rather ornery commissioner.

2) The egocentricity of your average American.
I'll only speak for Americans here, but I assume that all human beings on this here planet are as incapable of empathy as Americans. We look at our paycheck and shake our heads. We look at the salary of ballplayers — guys who are playing a game we'd play for free! — and shake our heads even more violently. The envy is understandable. But that doesn't mean it's justified. The bottom line is that we'd play the game for free because we suck at it, and players deserve the same opportunity each of us would demand in our own life: To make as much money as we can for the labor we offer. If someone suggested to you that you should take a pay cut because someone else would be willing to do your job horribly (but gratis!) just to have your corner office, you'd laugh your ass off. Unless, of course, you're so awful yourself that you have no reason to expect job security.

Thanks to this perspective, the vast majority of sports fans are in agreement with the market restrictions that are already in place in sports. Amateur drafts are the rule, and all sports have implemented either a hard or soft cap on the salaries that can be offered to draftees. While free agency is celebrated, no one seems to care that unfettered free agency is almost universally held back until a player is well into or past his prime (and that most players' careers will end before then). Two of the three major American sports leagues employ a salary cap, and my gut tells me most baseball fans would support one in the third.

As Sheehan suggests, the powers that be claim these market restrictions promote "competitive balance," and that's a concept most fans embrace (whether it's actually desirable is a subject for another day). But it's never actually been about competitive balance. It's about the constant financial tug-of-war between the athletes and the owners, and it's never really been a fair fight since owners, by nature, are more experienced in the battlefield that is business and labor issues. Marvin Miller is celebrated because of his ability to win the players a fairer shake, but he's also probably one of the most despised figures in the history of the game for the same reason.

When the signing deadline for draftees arrives in a couple of days, it's almost certain at least one first-rounder will remain unsigned (Allan Dykstra, selected by San Diego) due to a contract disagreement between player and club, and there's likely to be a couple more. Management will tell fans that the player was asking for too much money, though they'll be loathe to qualify that statement. And, on the whole, fans will turn their ire toward the players and lambaste them for being so audacious as to ask for that much money before "earning" it. To this day, J.D. Drew can't step foot in Philadelphia without being excoriated, and all because the Phillies refused to meet the contract demands he clearly outlined before the fucking draft took place. That Drew stuck to his guns and refused to capitulate — which led to him wasting a year of his career in an independent league — requires the sort of fortitude that most would consider admirable in different contexts. But he's one of baseball's least popular players because fans decided to side with what was one of baseball's worst-run franchises instead of the player who, despite being slagged constantly by just about everyone, was worth much more to the Cardinals over the course of his first contract than the $10 million the Phillies refused to pay.

So, essentially: Go kids. Get that money. And don't accept a penny less than you believe you're worth.

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Blogger Pete Toms said...

Bang on Connor.

I see the same thing in Canada. When the NHL locked out the players for an entire season in order to win a cap the fans here were overwhelmingly in favor of the owners' stance. The popular refrain amongst fans was along the lines of " well, if it lowers salaries so I can afford to take my family to a game it will be worth it." BS, as you point out, ticket prices are determined by supply and demand not player compensation. A handful of years later Senators tckts ( I'm in Ottawa ) are as expensive as ever and salaries have escalated, rightfully so because revenues have grown.

I think revenues and salaries in MLB will soon peak. MLB might set a 6th consecutive attendance record this season but a number of clubs have seen declining attendance this season. More telling is the increasing amount of clubs "discounting" tickets. The price of the tickets may be more impactful than the # sold. I think the biggest factor in record attendance and revenues in this era has been the stadium construction boom. The HOK / retro parks have been / are enormously popular. The novelty is wearing off though and attendance has probably plateaued (sic probably ).

Anyway, I'm not one of the fans who is jealous of the $$$ players garner.

Lastly, why don't the consumers of shitty Hollywood movies complain about movie star compensation? If you're stupid enough to be entertained by that garbage you're too stupid to ponder it anyway.

August 22, 2008 at 10:44 AM  

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