Obsessing Over Player Salaries Is Ruining Baseball

'Moneyball' taught fans to root like a boss instead of basking in the thrill of the game. On the 15th anniversary of Michael Lewis' book on the first team to master winning on a tight budget, here's a look at how it changed sports culture for the worse.

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Jun 14 2018, 5:32pm

Fans lose when they see Yankees outfielder Giancarlo Stanton only as his $325 million contract. Illustration by Seth Laupus

Giancarlo Stanton is having a good year.

Through a little over one-third of the season, the Yankees outfielder has slugged 15 home runs, putting him in the top 10 in baseball this year, and driven in 34 runs, good enough to make it into the top 30. Those are fine numbers, but more importantly, whenever he steps up to plate, it’s an event. There are few players who fans can anticipate crushing baseballs with such impunity.

But Yankees fans still aren’t pleased.

Some of the disappointment comes from the heightened expectations of Stanton’s own recent past, including hitting 59 home runs last year; this year he’s on pace for about 40. Another is the sweltering spotlight that Yankees fans put anyone not named Jeter under. But more than anything, it’s his contract—after the 2014 season, Stanton signed one worth $325 million over 13 years, or $25 million a year. It’s the largest contract in pro sports, so when Stanton plays like less than one of the tippity-toppest of players, it’s like he’s letting everyone down.

This is silly as hell. Watching sports should be about seeing the world’s greatest athletes compete against one another in a high-octane mix of physical prowess and mental dexterity, not crunching the numbers of what they make. But more than simply being embarrassingly nerdy, when you focus on player salaries, you’re really rooting for The Man.

Pro sports teams are the greatest scam in American history. They are corporations that use the innate tribalism of competition to deceive locals into believing players imported from around the world to don trademarked brand logos are somehow representative of the region in which they play their home games. And the owners of pro teams use these psychological blind spots to suck up public funds—often hundreds of millions of dollars in state and city money—to build their expansive, exclusive stores. So, when you examine players based on their contracts, you’re not only falling further for this masquerade, but you’re allowing the owners to get even more richer.

You’re allowing the bosses to win.

How contracts replaced homers as the crown jewel of baseball

Pro sports contracts have long been in the general conversational chum that fans opine about between games or innings. It’s entertainment, so whatever. But as contracts turned into multimillion-dollar levels—first due to the open market that came with free agency in 1976, then when athletes became brands for brands, and most recently as the spread of team-specific TV deals led to a new pile of cash—so did “smart” fans begin viewing the athlete’s quality not only through their on-the-field contributions, but also their contracts.

Two events happened in the early 2000s worth noting. The first occurred on December 11th, 2000, when Alex Rodriguez became pro sports’ richest player after signing a 10-year, $252 million contract with the Texas Rangers. (The previous high was NBA star Kevin Garnett’s six-year, $126 million contract.) That came with predictable heightened expectations—which A-Rod still somehow surpassed—but also with the expectation that he was responsible for his team’s fate. When the Rangers finished in 4th place in 2001, 2002, and 2003—turns out, spending more than a quarter of your payroll on one player in a sport that requires 25 isn’t the best idea!—the blame was placed entirely on A-Rod’s shoulders. He was the visual target out there at the plate, not the team brain trust hidden in their suites.

Alex Rodriguez became pro sports' highest paid player after signing a 10-year, $252 million contract with the Texas Rangers in 2000. Photo by Getty Images / Todd Warshaw

And so, the boos rained down on A-Rod. These followed him throughout his career. Sometimes they were because of steroids, sometimes because of his inane photoshoot with Details, but really, they didn’t start until that contract. They were always inherently about that contract.

Moneyball broke everyone’s brain

A-Rod’s groundbreaking contract with the Rangers coincided with author Michael Lewis hanging around the Oakland A’s front office to find out how they remained competitive without spending much money. (The answer: Spend on undervalued things, dummy.) This research ultimately became 2003’s Moneyball, released 15 years ago this week, the single most important cause for the rise of analytics in casual sports fandom.

The subsequent cottage industry of new stats that emerged has been fun, especially seeing players who once weren’t appreciated getting their just due. But part of the discourse in the post-analytics era has come down to who’s worth the money and who’s not. Statheads even have a name for it: “Surplus value.” (Obligatory link to Marx’s theory.) In short, a team has high surplus value if they get more out of their players than they pay, which is good, and low or negative value if their players are paid more than the performance they’re providing.

This year, the Cleveland baseball team has the most surplus value on their roster, while the Detroit Tigers have the least. (Angels first baseman Albert Pujols—who signed a 10-year, $240 million contract in 2012—has long reigned as the posterboy for “least valuable” player.) To “smart” baseball fans, Cleveland is “good” and the Tigers are “bad.” And while this will likely be true at the end of the season in terms of record, it’s not because one is better with money than the other.

It’s because one has good players, and the other does not.

Any “good” or “bad” value talk is inherently negative toward the player. The player is either an albatross, meaning they’re paid too much, or a bargain, meaning they’re worth rooting for now, but only until they get appropriately paid. It’s an infected point-of-view that leads fans to consider how much of a drain the player is on their team’s “financial constraints.”

Is that $325 million contract coming out of your pocket?

I am here to say: Who gives an utter fuck. You’re not the owner, so why do you care if they lose money?

Sports teams are not poor. They don’t lose money and aren’t nonprofits with their fingers crossed for another last minute donation. The average value of a Major League Baseball team in 2017 was $1.5 billion, according to a report from the National Sports Law Institute of Marquette University Law School. That’s a $1.3 billion increase since 2000. By comparison, National Football League and Basketball Association teams are now worth an average of $2.3 and $1.4 billion each, respectively.

Major league sports teams aren't hurting for money as this data from the National Sports Law Institute at Marquette shows.

In other words, the owners of pro sports teams are doing just fine. Even if a team “loses” money for the year—that is, spends more on contracts than it makes in merchandise and tickets—it literally doesn’t matter. Sports are so huge in America that any franchise gains value every single day it exists simply for existing as long as there are billionaires out there who want the ultimate status symbol. Fretting over a single cent being spent on players is irrelevant to the financial wherewithal of the business. But that’s something owners don’t want you to think about.

Sports players are incredibly rich, and that puts them in a different societal sphere than 99 percent of us. But they’re not the owners, the suits in the suites whose wallets never empty, who never pass along their “thriftiness” with lower ticket prices or cheaper beers, who exploit tax breaks and siphon off public funds to build private mansions. Those people deserve your scorn. But you shouldn’t care about what players make.

You should care about their arm, throwing something over 100 miles per hour. Or the split-second response needed to glance a strike against said object, let alone the hand-eye coordination needed to crush it deep into the stands. You should care about defensive shifts, a pitcher holding a speedster to a six-foot leadoff, or the bleacher hecklers who know how to get under the outfielder’s skin. That’s the game, that’s the entertainment, that’s the stuff worth paying attention to on a hot summer night under the lights. Not the players’ paychecks.

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