I have a few thoughts about the ongoing debate about the fight between MLB and the MLBPA that have been bubbling under the surface for me for a while, and that I want to try to put down while they are in the forefront of my mind.
The thing that gnaws at me is when folks defend the stances that the owners make, the cutthroat financial moves, the threats, the hard line stances, by simply saying, well, its a business.
Which first and foremost brings to mind the quote from John Matuszak’s character in North Dallas Forty: “Everytime I say it’s a game, you say it’s a business. Everytime I say it’s a business you say it’s a game.”
When owners make financial decisions that benefit ownership and not the players, well, its a business. When players want to be paid they are told how fortunate they should feel that they play a game for a living.
But the point that I think gets missed when folks talk about baseball being a business is that most businesses — most closely-held businesses, anyway — that have an owner or a few owners are actually run by the people who own the business. The folks who have a stake in the company provide value — at least theoretically — to the company.
A closely held business is generally going to be owned by someone who knows the field the business is in, who is involved in the day to day operations, who has knowledge and expertise in the field, who at a minimum is going to manage and oversee the operations of the company.
Someone who runs and operates a company, or who manages a company, who provides value to the business through their specialized skills or knowledge, brings value to the business. That person makes the business more valuable. That person provides a benefit to the employees, as well, because that person’s efforts make the business more successful, which means (at least in theory) jobs are more secure and employees can be paid more.
MLB owners don’t do that. Oh, sure, 150 years ago it was different. 150 years ago, owners were hands on, were involved, were active in not just building up their franchise, but in building up the league as a whole. Owners in the 1800s were actually building something, were actually creating something that didn’t previously exist.
But now? Now an MLB franchise is a turnkey operation that pretty much runs itself. MLB owners don’t build or create anything. Yes, an MLB owner has to hire folks at the top of the organization chart, but for the most part, an owner is effectively analogous to a board of directors. An owner hires a few people to run things, sets a budget, is asked to approve a few major decisions, maybe gets involved with governmental bodies when begging for public financing for a stadium...but otherwise is largely a figurehead, as far as the team they own is concerned.
And as far as the league goes, owners simply hire a commissioner and tell him to go do whatever needs to be done to make them money.
The people who own MLB teams aren’t really “business owners” in the sense we think about the term. They aren’t working to improve the product or enhance the experience for consumders. The people who own MLB teams are basically investors — they are shelling out money expecting to earn an outsized return for very little work, while also getting the bragging rights and ego boost that comes from being a professional franchise owner.
Every single owner of an MLB franchise could drop dead tomorrow, and MLB would not suffer one iota. The fan experience wouldn’t suffer. The quality of the game wouldn’t be impacted. The thirty ownership groups could be replaced by thirty new ownership groups overnight, and there would be no practical impact on the game.
When folks say, “Its their money, they write the checks,” it underscores the point that, for ownership groups, it is an investment or a toy (or some combination thereof). When David Glass, who bought the Kansas City Royals for $96 million in 2000, sold the Royals in November, 2019, for what was estimated to be $1 billion, it was simply one speculator cashing in while another was betting on the team’s value continuing to go up. That money from the sale of the team is simply going from one investor’s pocket to another, doing nothing to bolster MLB itself.
Its what is so frustrating to me when people argue that owners put up the money, as if putting up the money to buy a team in 2020 is in any way beneficial for us consumers or makes the product any better. If anything, its the opposite — ownership groups chasing the 12% annualized return teams have been offering leverage themselves as a result, meaning that money that would otherwise stay in the organization and be used on major league players, or paying minor league players more, or upgrading facilities, instead is used to pay back debt.
MLB owners aren’t angel investors infusing cash into the system so that teams, and the league, can grow, can expand, can get better, can provide more value to more consumers. They aren’t guys who wrote the checks to keep the business afloat and make it what it is now.
MLB owners are the guys who came into a mature, stable business with an existing brand and a legal monopoly and who are trying to milk it for all the cash they can.
The players are the ones who provide value. The players are the ones who do the work. The players are the ones who are the best in the world at what they do. The players are the product. The 30 current owners are the guys who put up a bunch of money in the hopes that they could passively profit off of a century and a half long legacy and the work that the players do.
Which is why it makes me angry when owners act offended that players don’t want to agree to more pay cuts. Its why it makes me angry when fans act like players should accept the 65% pay cut for 2020 that the league is apparently insisting on, when Rob Manfred’s $11 million rumored salary is not subject to a similar reduction. Its why it makes me angry when owners refuse to open their books, refuse to divulge the details of the financials of the teams to the players, expect players to just take the owners at their word, and then throw a tantrum and threaten to cancel the season when players won’t acquiesce to what the owners want.
Because the owners don’t seem to understand how pointless, how useless, how supernumerary they really are. MLB doesn’t need owners. It doesn’t need the money they put into purchasing the team — that simply goes to the previous set of owners.
Owners don’t seem to realize, when they say that players need to sacrifice for the long-term health of the sport, that they are asking the players to sacrifice themselves for the benefit of the owners. A player’s earning years are limited. His career is short. And the sacrifices they are being asked to make to ensure the long-term health of the sport inure to the owners, who benefit down the road from those sacrifices.
Owners provide no value to baseball. They provide no value to the fan. And we as fans should view them as what they really are — leveraged speculators for whom the team is simply an overpriced Beanie Baby, not an integral, necessary part of the sport.