More on the Yankees payroll arguments
For almost a decade, the Yankees have consistently maintained the highest payroll in Major League Baseball while failing to bring home a World Series title, and during that time the grousing took the form of ridicule. What Yankees fans heard then was: â€œSee? You Yankees canâ€™t buy championships, even with all of your money.â€ What we hear today is: â€œSee? You Yankees just buy championships with all of your money.â€
This is not a coherent line of argument, but then again it would be naÃ¯ve to look for any motivation here other than envy, because the logic at work is so suspect. Itâ€™s pretty safe to say that a good number of those who hate the Yankees because of their payroll are unabashed capitalists, too; theyâ€™d be very unlikely to begrudge the fact that the highest valued, best performing organization in any given market also led that market. Thatâ€™s not just capitalism, itâ€™s the way capitalism is practiced in America.
I always find this kind of argument sweet. It’s like when people born in to rich families who attend private prep schools and are legacy-admitted into the finest universities in the country wonder why people in abject poverty don’t just, en masse, pull themselves up into prosperity.
Baseball-wise, that was me for a long time. The guy who owns the Twins is worth billions, why doesn’t he just spend a billion instead of bleating about how poor his stadium revenues are?
And that’s actually a valid case — many of the teams in baseball are never-full ticks sucking blood out of the sport, and baseball (and Selig-as-commissioner-with-bajillions-in-his-fund) should be ashamed about it.
But here’s where that whole argument goes wrong: let’s say that the Yankees devote more of their revenue to payroll than any other team. That’s admirable, and they should indeed be lauded for it.
Except… it costs every team, no matter how cheap, about forty million just to keep the lights on and the minor leagues running, and so on, and it’s more like sixty million. Then it’s another thirty million to pay a cheapo major league team.
So let’s say there are three teams:
Team Lamprey plays in a market of 1m people and have a cheap owner, and take in $60m in operating revenue.
Team Modest plays in a market of 1m and tries to compete, and they take in $90m in operating revenue.
Team Rich plays in a good but not New York market and tries to compete. They take in $175m in operating revenue.
Team Yankees… they take in $250m in operating revenue.
You see the problem already. The lights-on-and-field-a-team pays 50% of their revenue to keep the lights on. Team Modest, 30%. Team Rich, 17%. Team Yankees, 10%.
Now that’s an exaggeration to make a point (the Yankees end up paying more to keep the lights on), but that’s how it sorts out. I happened to have Pappas’ numbers from 2002 up (here) and the two teams with the lowest non-player expense:operating revenue ratio were the Yankees and Red Sox (check out the Mariners, by the way, and that massive non-player expenses line. I believe that’s us buying Ichiro).
Beyond which, when teams like the Yankees and Red Sox who are big enough to have their own cable networks they can move revenue off the books do so, they really shouldn’t get credit for that against teams that have to account for their Fox Sportsnets payments normally.
The problem is not that the Yankees spend, or that their fans live in a bubble of privileged and can’t seem to grasp that they’re the beneficiaries of a broken system. It’s that because of the way MLB is set up, the Yankees and the Mets operate like government-sanctioned monopolies. In any equitable world, the New York metro market supports three, maybe four teams. And we can talk about how you manage that, or how you might start one of those teams, but the result of having only two teams is exactly what Posnanski pointed out: both New York teams get to operate as if they’re two franchises. They can, year in and year out, spend vastly more on everything, compete consistently, and when they’re weak, they can add a team’s worth of payroll in one off-season to shore up a few positions and then go on happily.
And crowing about how the Yankees once sucked doesn’t obviate any of that. They’re like some scion born to a super-wealthy family that gets into Yale, stumbles around life for a while making a jerk of themselves… yayyyy, education can’t overcome everything. And then they decide to go into, I don’t know, golf course ownership, and of course they’ve got a ton of backers from family friends, effectively unlimited capital to work with, even after they blow up the first few tries and they’re mysteriously let off the hook for some bookkeeping shenanigans during that time, and ta da! Fourth time’s a charm, they’re golf course moguls!
Is it envy to look at that and wonder if perhaps there were many more people who couldn’t have done better and more important things with the same advantages, as we are to think with the Yankees? Sure. Maybe.
That’s the point. I’m a fan of a relatively wealthy team that spends a lot of money on payroll, having long been a fan of a really poor team that spent nothing, and for all my carping about their constant inflation of how much they’re spending on payroll for PR purposes, this is way better. But my team would have to absorb the A’s (or better yet, our hated interleague rivals the Padres) for us to enjoy the kind of advantages the Yankees and Mets do.
And I don’t see that the presence of bloodsucker teams makes it okay for the Yankees and Mets to enjoy such crazy unbalance. In an ideal world, a good ownership group would sense opportunity and buy one of those teams, move them to New York, and we’d have some competition. That the system is broken and rewards both established geographical monopolies and cheapskates doesn’t mean that either is in the right, or that no action should be taken with regard to both.
And as long as baseball lets those two grow endlessly fat on their geographical advantage, everyone is going to take rightful glee when they fail to make anything of it, and they’re going to rightfully throw rotten fruit when they do.