I’ve long been fascinated by the economics of baseball: from Michael Lewis’s Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game and Jon Passah’s The Game: Inside Baseball’s Power Brokers to the 2019 (not)hot stove and rumors of a possible 2021 strike. This potential labor disruption has led to early rumblings from fans (and even a few players) that players are paid too much given that they “play a kids’ game” and make multi-million dollar salaries while owners assume the financial risk. (See the replies to this Jon Heyman tweet for a sampling.) More players are speaking out about the worsening problems with free agency. (Sheryl Ring provides an overview here, as does Dan Drezner here.)
Despite my interest, I’m not qualified to write about money and labor relations. Instead, I’d like to address a different question: Why do fans tend to side with owners over players, even though the owners are exponentially richer than the players? As David Roth points out, baseball owners can afford high payrolls. Many fans’ decision to side with owners over players is, I would argue, a rhetorical issue that involves exploiting fandom.
First, consider what “fandom” means. Grinnell College’s “Fandom and Participatory Culture” offers the following definition:
Fan culture, or fandom, is a term which describes communities built around a shared enjoyment of an aspect of popular culture, such as books, movies, TV shows, bands, sports or sports teams, etc. Fan cultures are examples of participatory cultures. Participatory cultures involve fans acting not only as consumers but also as producers and creators of some form of creative media.
The ways in which we select our fandoms are complex, but those ties run deep. In baseball, fandom is often tied to family relationships. (See the replies to this @HotStoveStats tweet.) And if there’s one thing baseball is good at, it’s exploiting nostalgia. The ways in which we show commitment to our team are also complex, but most involve participation through spending money (e.g, attending games, buying merchandise, and subscribing to sports platforms).
Consider the complexity of Rockies fan culture. Fans gather at games; they watch AT&T SportsNet RM or listen to KOA or KNRV; they interact online through Purple Row’s game threads or Reddit or other social media platforms. #RockiesTwitter is a vibrant online community with clear personalities, inside jokes (Rockiea), and even a Twitter tournament. (Jake Shapiro’s explainer, argues that the community was forged through years of commiserating over bad baseball.) Ultimately, fandom creates a sense of belonging to a community set apart from the larger population.
The Colorado Rockies are happy to cultivate our fandom. @Rockies is amazing for many reasons: They interact with fans, play along with jokes, and provide inside access (e.g., Nolan Arenado’s apology to a Hi-Chew tub). Beneath all the fun, however, is a carefully constructed marketing strategy.
Meanwhile, the players are building their own brands. I’m not sure that any Rockie is better at it than Charlie Blackmon. The little boy yelling, “Charlie Blackmon! Charlie Blackmon!” is a perfect example. He recognizes Chuck Nazty because of his distinctive look and a deft social media presence designed to encourage fandom.
Nolan Arenado has a very different persona. Arenado doesn’t do social media, which is part of his brand. Rather, he’s a bit of a remora, feeding off the social media of others. A glimpse of Arenado on social media (other than the Rockies) is rare, which is why Gerardo Parra’s Instagram video of Arenado jamming in a car or Carlos González’s photo at Trevor Story’s wedding are such treats.
Arenado and Blackmon are exceptional baseball players, but they become more than athletes to fans because of the ways in which they are personalized through Rockies marketing (#NolanBeingNolan). Fans feel like they know players, even though what they “know” is a marketing strategy. This personalization of players is key to fandom because it gives players personality in a game known for discouraging personal expression. (Just Google “bat flips” and “personalized cleats.”)
For example, when @Rockies tweets the inflight menu, we feel like we’re not just behind the scenes but on the plane with the team. (Confession: I’ve tweeted my food requests more than once.) Similarly, when we see Instagram photos of Nolan and Charlie fishing (I’m using their first names, like I know them), it’s a great story, and we’re seeing them do something we could do with them — just like when we pretend to be on the Rockies’ private plane.
@Rockies has a reason to make us invest in the Rockies because, besides all the fun, it’s a way to generate revenue. MLB is big business, complete with an antitrust exemption granted in 1922 and reaffirmed by the Supreme Court in 2018. It also has a lobby powerful enough to get the minimum-wage and overtime exemption “Save America’s Pastime Act” written into the $1.3 trillion omnibus spending bill passed in 2018. Marketing players and growing fandom is part of the business model. Case in point: Everyone loved Tulo, but when he became a bad investment, the Rockies traded him and never looked back.
Why fandom matters
Fans know players because of marketing, and they know player salaries because those amounts are very public. But player salaries only tell part of the baseball economics story. As Patrick Dubuque writes in “Cold Takes: What They Make”:
While it’s good that players know what players make, that doesn’t mean it serves them for us to know it, especially when the performance of the millionaire is so visible to the common fan, so easy to deplore, while the actions of the billionaire are cloaked behind the veil.
We know so little about the finances of MLB teams, and it’s impossible to know how much of what we’re told is true, how much teams really are struggling with payroll and the luxury tax. . . . [T]he fact is that we don’t know, that we’re not allowed to know.
Dubuque’s right: We’re not told enough to truly understand the economics of teams, and without knowing that, our knowledge of player salaries lacks context. (See owners avoiding tough questions in this piece on Dodgers President Stan Kasten or this one on the Padres opening their books — kind of.) But I’d add that our carefully cultivated fandom encourages fans to ignore the missing information and side with the owners over players when it comes to salaries.
Here’s an example. I feel like I know Nolan Arenado (even though I don’t) because of the ways in which he’s been marketed, and I know that in 2019, Arenado will be making $26 million, the most ever paid to a free agent for a single season. While I don’t have any experience earning that much money, I do have a mental scale for measuring big dollar amounts. The college where I work has an operating budget of roughly $25 million per year. In 2019, Nolan Arenado will earn a little more than the budget of my employer. In visualizing Arenado’s salary in this way, I’ve personalized it, both through my fandom and by comparing it to my own job, not unlike the way in which I might compare my salary to a co-worker’s.
However, I don’t have the same relationship with the Dick Monfort. With the exception of being the Rockies owner, he’s relatively unknown to fans, who only seem to talk about him in reductive terms. Monfort has chosen to not have the media presence of players. I don’t know how much money he makes — I looked, but I couldn’t find it — but it’s a lot, certainly many times what players earn. He’s allowed to keep that information and the Rockies’ finances private. (For example, he revealed on Saturday that the Rockies TV revenues are 40 million, more than twice than what was believed.) It’s impossible for me to make the same comparison between myself and Monfort’s wealth. It’s also less personal than comparing my salary to Arenado’s.
Fans tend to forget what they don’t know, however, because Dick Montfort isn’t the face of the Rockies. Nolan Arenado is. #NolanBeingNolan indeed.
“Playing a kids’ game”
With this in mind, consider the value of Nolan Arenado’s work — or “playing a kids’ game.” That’s a gross misrepresentation of what a professional baseball player does. In addition to being born with certain physical gifts, professional baseball players spend years honing their skills, survive the minor leagues before making it to the professional level, train year round, risk career-ending injuries every time they take the field, and endure a brutal season with extensive travel (and in the Rockies’ case, extreme altitude changes). That’s not “playing a kids’ game”: That’s being a revenue generator in a sport that earned $10.3 billion in 2018.
In addition to Arenado’s physical skills, he has become the face of the Rockies’ franchise, which involves participating in building the Rockies fandom. Part of his job is to be Nolan Arenado, both the player and the persona. Arenado is unique. He generates revenue for the Monforts/Rockies. And he should be paid for it.
What’s not known are the goals of team owners. In this era of “tanking,” some owners (all of whom are very wealthy) appear more motivated to make money rather than field a winning team. Depressing player salaries is a way to save money, but that gets lost in the abstraction of “payroll flexibility.” Pretty soon, fans, who mostly care about winning, find themselves embracing an owner-centric perspective of signing talent as cheaply as possible, even though that mindset devalues player salaries.
This became clear to me a few weeks ago with a piece I wrote about the Rockies’ catching situation. There were comments to this effect: Perhaps Yasmani Grandal, one of the best catchers in baseball, would be a player the Rockies could “pick up cheap,” especially given his dismal post-season. Think about that. Fans were hoping that a player might earn less than his worth to increase the odds that the Rockies would sign him.
That motivation comes from fandom: Fans want the Rockies to win, and based on past history, the Rockies are moderate spenders, especially compared to the Yankees or Dodgers. In fairness, that’s shifted since Jeff Bridich became general manager and implemented a philosophy of “responsible growth”. According to Thomas Harding, this year, the Rockies’ payroll will be just over $140 million, the 11th highest in baseball. (You can compare payrolls here.) Fans have learned to accept owners’ murky baselines and effectively advocate for owners against players. In other words, fans have been conditioned to shop for players in the same way they would for a pair of shoes. But wealthy owners refusing to pay players their worth isn’t comparable to a middle-class consumer hunting for bargains.
Treating Yasmani Grandal as a “bargain” is wrong. You want to be paid your worth, and you want your employment to be secure. Grandal has every reason to expect that, too. (He ultimately accepted a one-year deal for $18 million; MLB Trade Rumors predicted he’d get four years and $64 million.) Baseball players are workers, and they deserve to be fairly compensated for their work. It turns out, you have a lot more in common with Yasmani Grandal and Nolan Arenado than you do with Dick Monfort, even if Grandal and Arenado will earn more in a single season than you may in your entire life.
Team owners have lots of money — they earned record revenues in 2018. They can afford to pay players their worth. As fans, we should accept nothing less.