Saturday, August 31, 2002

Most commentators doubt that the recent settlement of Major League Baseball's labor dispute will ultimately solve baseball's competitiveness problems; the consensus is that "small-market" teams with relatively meager fan bases and lower revenue prospects will continue to have great difficulty competing for superstars against their "large-market" counterparts with bulging pocketbooks to spend on stratospheric player contracts. But for some reason, none of these analysts seems able to think beyond a few minor variations on the set of gimmicks already contained in the new agreement--that is, revenue sharing and limitations on overspending by wealthy teams. This narrow-mindedness betrays a fundamentally shallow view of the problems besetting the game.

Contrary to popular belief, large-market sports teams are not always dominating powerhouses that make mincemeat of their smaller, poorer opponents. After all, a large market is also often a reliably lucrative one--that is, one that can generate a steady stream of revenue regardless of how badly its team stinks up the joint. (Think, for example, of the Chicago Cubs.) Moreover, even small market teams can play well below their potential when their owners decide to put parsimony before performance (as any number of small-market teams demonstrate consistently, year after year.)

The problem, in short, is not revenue disparity among teams, but rather the lack of a connection between team revenue and team performance. When an owner can make decisions that are in his or her obvious financial interest but bad for the team's winning potential, fans are understandably upset--just as they would be if, say, an individual player took a personal payoff to throw a game. What is needed, therefore, is not a system that artificially evens out team incomes--thus further insulating owners from the effects of their undermining of the quality of their own teams--but rather a system that financially rewards good, skillful, competitive team management, and punishes its opposite.

There's an obvious choice for such a system: pool the revenues of all the clubs, and redistribute them based strictly on team performance. That's how most sports work, after all--whatever you spend, your income depends (almost) exclusively on the "prize money" awarded you for your competitive successes. In the case of baseball, each team's revenues for the year would simply depend on its winning percentage, according to some predetermined formula. Labor strife would likely disappear as a result, since the "value" of a player's services would be directly measurable (or at least estimable) in terms of that player's effect on team performance (and hence on team earnings). Mediocre owners and general managers would also no longer be able to use the economic limitations of their markets as an excuse; they would instead be directly comparable as team-builders, on the basis of their ability to invest shrewdly in "undervalued" players and gain maximum return on their farm prospects. And a dominating team, however wealthy, could always be toppled by a shrewd investor able to build a better team--and thus earn greater returns--on the same invested capital.

This is a radical proposal, of course--probably too radical to be considered seriously by any of the major sports leagues. We can therefore predict with confidence that the problem teams of professional sports--not profligate winners like baseball's Yankees or Diamondbacks, or football's Dolphins or Forty-Niners, but rather fan-ripoff scams like baseball's Cubs or football's Bengals--will continue to eat away at the integrity and popularity of their respective leagues from within for many years to come.

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