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Why you should side with the players, not the owners

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The old arguments are back. It’s time to talk about them.

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We are still waiting (eagerly) for the return of baseball. From the most recent reporting by Ken Rosenthal and Evan Drellich, we know that the owners have rejected the most recent counter proposal by the MLB Players Association with the most-contentious issues being player pay and the length of the season. In a report late yesterday, Rosenthal and Drellich confirmed that the MLBPA was standing firm in rejecting pay cuts beyond those agreed on in March.

Last year (February 5, to be exact), I wrote a piece called “Rockies fandom in the time of money and information.” In it, I attempted to explain why fans tend to side with owners rather than players, even though fans have more in common with the players. My approach was based on the rhetoric of fandom rather than economics. Here’s a heart of my argument:

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 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 Monfort isn’t the face of the Rockies. Nolan Arenado is. #NolanBeingNolan indeed.

I’ve thought about this essay a lot since the owners began negotiations with the MLB Players Association in an attempt to bring back baseball in 2020. I think the argument I made then holds up, and I’m still baffled as to why fans would side with owners over players. Let’s examine some of the arguments.

“It’s grown men playing a kids’ game” — Actually, it’s a gifted group of workers doing the jobs they are uniquely skilled at performing. Frankly, devaluing anyone’s work is a bad idea. Whatever your job is, you’ve trained and worked to be good at it, and you expect to be compensated fairly. Professional athletes are no different, and they should be fairly compensated for the work they do, which, as it turns out, makes a whole lot of money for some very wealthy men. (In 2019, MLB generated a record $10.7 billion according to Forbes.) The fact their work happens to be “playing a kids’ game” is beside the point. Being an engineer or an artist or a teacher or a barista or a daycare provider is legitimate work. So is being a baseball player, and they should be paid fairly for doing it.

“It’s millionaires versus billionaires”— First, the difference between being a millionaire and a billionaire is, well, a lot. Is it more than you or I make? Yes, probably. Is this earning happening during a time of record unemployment? Yes. But it is still objectively true that a billionaire is worth a whole lot more money than a millionaire, which means that the owners are worth a whole lot more than the players. That $10.7 billion MLB generated last year in record profits? They didn’t share any of that with the players; rather, they honored the contracts they had signed. So it seems a bit disingenuous to ask the players to take a salary hit and share the losses during a bad year. By the way, according to Forbes, MLB teams have gained value in 2020. And in case you wondered, the Rockies are worth $1.275 billion, an increase of 4% from 2019.

What is the average salary of an MLB player? According to a March 2019 article in MarketWatch, “The 872 players on rosters and injured lists on Monday evening averaged $4.36 million, down from $4.41 million at the start of last season and $4.45 million on opening day in 2017, according to AP studies.” So while $4.36 million is a lot, the average declined for two years, which was “unprecedented.” And if you wondered what the owners’ proposed sliding scale would mean for the Rockies, Ben Kouchnerkavich has written about it here. (TL;DR: Under the owners’ proposal, Nolan Arenado would earn $5,478,618. That’s a lot of money, right? Well, yes, but to put it another way, Arenado would have taken an 84.3% salary cut. That’s just wrong.)

As a comparison, according to Yahoo! Finance, Lawrence and Paul Dolan, owners of the Cleveland Indians, are worth $4.6 billion; Charles Johnson, owner of the San Francisco Giants, is worth $3.9 billion; and the Ilitch Family, owner of the Detroit Tigers, is worth $3.8 billion. The folks who own baseball teams are extraordinarily wealthy, even in comparison to well paid baseball players.

Neil Paine has done an interesting analysis of the owners’ financial situation based on the best guesses he could make with the information available to him. Here’s what he concludes: “[T]he owners’ proposed salary-reduction scheme looks like a clever sleight-of-hand designed to cause a shortened season — in the midst of a life-changing pandemic for millions of Americans — to essentially give them the same profit as they made during a full season in the midst of a baseball boom.” The owners are significantly wealthier than the players for a reason.

“The owners assume all the risk” — Actually, no one knows because the owners won’t open their team books, so it’s impossible to say that they will, in fact, lose exorbitant amounts of money if baseball is played in empty stadiums. When Max Scherzer tweeted “I’m glad to hear other players voicing the same viewpoint and believe MLB’s economic strategy would completely change if all documentation were to become public knowledge,” that’s what he was getting at. Want an example closer to home? We still don’t know the worth of the Rockies TV contract that begins in 2021, only that it was less than Dick Monfort hoped for. No one, save the owners and their accountants, knows what’s in those books.

And let’s also be very clear about the risk they’ve assumed. They play in stadiums that receive public financing. They have TV contracts that restrict access to the game. They have the political power to lobby the United States Congress to include the “Save America’s Pasttime Act” in a $1.3 trillion spending bill, which ensured minor league players could receive below-minimum wage salaries. They have largely killed Minor League Baseball, despite the economic impact it will have on local communities and the ways in which it will affect the long-term growth of baseball. (Read Andrew Church’s statement about his time in the Mets organization here for some additional insight.) They have cut and furloughed staff. I’m not sure how much “risk” is involved when you’re able to manipulate the political system to enable you to earn money and minimize losses.

And just to be clear, the players will assume all of the physical risks that go with playing baseball during a pandemic. They should be paid fairly.

It’s less about money than it is about power, and the owners have the kind of wealth that buys political power. You can say what you want to about the players being millionaires, but I can’t see them having the political clout to influence legislation. And if you think the owners have your back, try saying that with a straight face the next time you’re paying $11 for a beer at Citi Field or trying to watch a blacked-out game you’ve paid to see. In the same way the owners exploit players, they exploit fans.

So, me, I’m with the players—unless the owners open their books. Then I’m willing to reassess.