Fandom in the Time of Money: A rebuttal

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The original article is really good, even if I disagree with much of it.

There are really two main issues here and while there's some overlap I really think they are separate issues. First, that fans analyze contracts essentially from an owner or GM perspective, and second, fans tend to side with owners in a labor dispute. I'll try to tease these apart although I'm not able to cleanly divide them.

Many fans’ decision to side with owners over players is, I would argue, a rhetorical issue that involves exploiting fandom.

I guess I have a little issue with this notion of "exploiting" fandom. Exploiting implies a one-sided or unfair relationship which I don't think actually exists. The implication here is that owners are manipulating fans into siding with them, when in a fair relationship the fans would side more with the players. But I really don't think this is the case at all. Fans don't care about owners or players, they care about the sport itself.

In the 1994 strike, fans, generally speaking, were angry with everybody. Fans didn't much care about revenue sharing or a salary cap, they were angry that there was a dispute over money between a bunch of people, who were all wealthy, that would lead to damaging the sport that the fans felt ownership over. Many of the fans had been fans since before any of the current players were even born, and in some cases before the teams they were fans of had existed.

Baseball as a participatory culture really did come into play here. Baseball is bigger than the people who were ruining it, and while owners and players both suffered, the fans felt that the trust that they had (willingly or not) placed in those people had been betrayed. While legally speaking commissioners and copyright holders have power and fans don't, in reality that power exists only at the pleasure of the fans, who can and do stop spending money if they aren't happy.

There's this tendency somehow to think that the money that the fans provide is a given, and the question is how it should be divided, but that's completely the wrong way to look at it. Neither owners nor players are the most important stakeholders. Fans are.

It's easy to be a fan, hard to be a player, and expensive to be an owner; but collectively speaking, players and owners are replaceable; fans aren't. If every player retired tomorrow, the season might be cancelled but the game would be back in 2020 with new players. If every owner sold their team at once, new owners would step in. If every fan stopped watching games, the whole sport would be gone in a month and never return.

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.

Yes! Except ... why is this a problem? Fans don't care who gets more money, and why should they? Fans care about the game itself, not which group of fabulously wealthy people gets a bigger slice of the pie (that the fans paid for). Fans aren't taking an owner-centric view, they're taking a fan-centric view. It's just that the fan-centric view happens to be more closely aligned with the owners. Well, sometimes.

Fans only have owner-aligned interests in one particular place, the individual player signing. No fan cares how profitable the team is, unless it's so unprofitable that it ends up moving away from their city, or the ballpark deteriorates. No fan cares what percentage of total revenue goes to the players, unless it results in a strike. No fan cares how much off-field staff gets paid, unless it keeps the team from scouting and developing players. Fans only care about the product, which is the team on the field, and individual player salaries directly impact the product. In this one respect only, fans' interests align with owners.

But baseball is hardly unique here. Suppose OPEC decides to create some new tariff that makes it harder to import oil. Oil companies don't like it because it hurts their business. Drivers don't like it because they pay more for fuel. Oil companies didn't have to manipulate drivers into not liking this tariff. They just happened to have the same interests.

Beneath all the fun, however, is a carefully constructed marketing strategy... Meanwhile, the players are building their own brands... This personalization of players is key to fandom because it gives players personality in a game known for discouraging personal expression.

I think this is a little too cynical, or maybe it's just my reading of it that makes it seem overly cynical to me. Maybe in today's world of "reality" TV and fake-authentic Youtube stars it's easy to be cynical, but baseball players aren't Youtube stars. Baseball is a real sport played by players with real skills, and those skills, not their cultivated personae, are what control how much money they make. It's not wrestling where manufactured personalities and drama rule. There were baseball fans long before anyone had television, much less social media. If anything, baseball is far behind other sports in this area (meaning only not moving as quickly - not intended as a value judgement). One of the most common complaints is that baseball doesn't market its stars, and almost nobody outside of fans has any idea who any currently active baseball player even is.

Fans will interact with players on social media given the chance. But social media didn't create fandom. Sports fans have been around forever, but other fandoms managed to exist without social media too. Star Trek fandom managed to organize itself in the 1960s with nothing more than paper mail, mimeographs and an occasional telephone call. Social media is an enabler, but not a prerequisite.

The persona isn't always even a positive thing. We certainly remember the Daniel Murphy Kerfuffle. But Daniel Murphy isn't an extreme example. It wasn't that long ago that John Rocker was around. Not long before that, Marge Schott was around. They certainly didn't carefully cultivate a persona, but there were still fans. It was because there were fans that anyone cared about these people at all!

Fans tend to forget what they don’t know, however, because Dick Monfort isn’t the face of the Rockies. Nolan Arenado is.

Well, I'm certainly not going to dispute this given that this was essentially my whole argument in a previous post. Fans really don't care about ownership, just players, because players are the product. But fans care mostly about the stars, and stars all have plenty of money. Do I much care if Nolan Arenado makes $24 million or $30 million? No, I really don't. If he had played twenty years ago, he'd be lucky to be making $5 million. And I wouldn't have cared then about the difference between $3 million and $5 million. It's just not possible to care about the finances of someone who makes so much money. Fans only care when, in aggregate, player salaries add up to a strike. If Nolan Arenado were scraping by on $26,000 a year, fans would care. But he's scraping by on 1,000 times that.

So why don't fans care about the salaries of minor leaguers? Well, that's a whole other topic. I'll probably be writing about that later.

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.

I think this is a mischaracterization of what tanking is about. I find the whole concern kind of weird, honestly. Teams in every sport do this. You play badly in one year so you can save money and get better draft picks, and then in some future year you use the money you saved and the players you drafted to win. It's only not been done much in baseball because getting better draft picks didn't matter as much and the pipeline was longer than in other sports. But as scouting gets better, and draft bonuses have been capped, draft position matters more, and tanking becomes a more effective strategy. It's a structural change, but is it actually bad? I don't really see why. Somebody is always going to be the worst team. The Cubs and Red Sox were terrible for decades without accomplishing anything. Now teams like the Astros, or Rockies for that matter, can be bad and then get better. What is so wrong with being bad and planning to get better, as opposed to just being bad aimlessly?

It seems like people have some sort of issue with strategies developed in salary cap leagues being adopted in baseball. I think there's some sort of sense that these strategies are morally wrong unless you are playing in a salary cap league. But why? They were developed to save money, and saving money is good for everyone. It's a little more urgent in a capped league, but baseball owners didn't get to be rich by wasting money, so it was inevitable that these strategies would come to baseball if it became advantageous to use them.

In the recent past, say in the late 1990s and early 2000s, there was a period where it seemed as though some owners intended to never field a winning team, they'd just sit back, cheap out on players, collect television and revenue sharing money, and never really contribute to the viability of the sport. People sometimes act as though the union will get antsy if some individual team doesn't spend enough, but actually the enforcer here is the other owners, who only pay revenue sharing money to maintain the viability of the sport as a whole, and aren't interested in subsidizing other owners so they can line their pockets. And so when this happens, they start threatening to contract your franchise. And as a result we haven't seen this in a couple of decades.

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.

I completely agree with this. Terms like "playing a kids' game" are ad hominem attacks deployed to denigrate the person involved. To borrow an example from other fandom, this is a thing that is happening in Doctor Who fandom right now, where people on one side of their particular culture war denigrate the other side for "caring so much about a kids' show." Because, you know, it isn't, and also, why doesn't that apply to both sides? It is just a cheap shot and no one should say it.

However, when applied to sports players, it does have an additional meaning. And here is the one place where I think the article is correct in that the fans side with owners, although you have to read between the lines a bit to really get to it. The implication in this particular attack is that players aren't doing real work, and therefore they should be grateful for whatever they get. And, you know, they should. But then, I work in a reasonably ordinary white-collar career, and I'm grateful for it, too, because I don't have to do physically demanding work under dangerous and harsh conditions like my father or cousin, or 99% of the people that have ever lived. So baseball players just have a slightly better dream job. Should they be grateful? Yes. Is it real work? Also yes. But it certainly isn't traditional blue collar union work.

Owners, on the other hand, are understood to be running businesses. And there's not really a sense that baseball owners are exceptional, relative to other business executives. Sure, it's nice to be a CEO, but it's still considered "real work," and for good reason.

So if anyone wonders why even other unionized workers don't have as much sympathy for players as it seems like they "should," it's because they don't really feel kinship with those players. They probably do feel more kinship with owners, who are at least doing a "real job." The players' union might operate as a union legally, but players aren't really labor in the way that blue-collar workers are. And outside of the public sector, union membership is on the decline. It just doesn't mean that much.

But it just doesn't matter. Fans' own interests and care for the sport itself trump their sympathy for either side. The job of the fans isn't to decide which side is "more deserving." They're fans, not arbitrators. The question isn't who should get a bigger slice of an impossibly huge pie. The question is which greedy group of mega-zillionaires is going to put the size of their slice ahead of the people who actually pay the bills, the people who actually matter, the fans.

Eat. Drink. Be Merry. But the above FanPost does not necessarily reflect the attitudes, opinions, or views of Purple Row's staff (unless, of course, it's written by the staff [and even then, it still might not]).