Friday, February 03, 2012

Don't Tell Me They're Not Worth It

Once upon a time, I remember people bitching about how ballplayers got paid too much. "They're just playing a game," people said. "They don't need that money." And of course, "We should be paying people who are really important, like policemen and teachers."

These days, you still get people bitching about ballplayers being paid too much. The difference, of course, is that now they're saying that money should go to the owners instead, because the owners "take all the risk". Funny how times change.

Politics aside, however, it's an idiotic position to take. The players are paid, despite numerous attempts to artificially suppress their wages (draft slotting, luxury taxes, multiple years until free agency, etc.) what they're worth to the business of the team that employs them. The players are, after all, the product. The better the players, the better the product. The better the product, the more seats you fill, the more beers you sell, the more team merch goes out the door. It's a simple, direct, and obvious function, and it's purely capitalist - the best players outcompete their peers to get the most money.

And the owners...are in position to write those checks. Not because "they're taking all the risk." They're not. More often than not, it's the taxpayers who are taking all the risk. They're the ones underwriting the new stadiums, after all. They're the ones giving up city parking revenues and naming rights on public buildings, they're the ones paying the extra half-cent in tax that pays for the new parking lots, they're the ones stuck with the bill if the metaphorical pooch gets screwed. Team owners take all the risks? Just ask the suckers from New Jersey, still on the hook for a quarter-billion in bonds for the Meadowlands, who's taking the risks. Ask Dodgers fans how Frank McCourt's siphoning a couple of hundred million dollars out of the team and leveraging a Los Angeles landmark was taking all the risks. And meanwhile, team values rise and rise.

The people who are rich enough to own sports teams got that way because they're good at making money. If they didn't think they'd make even more money owning a team, they wouldn't buy one. They get tax breaks on the purchase, an asset that constantly increases in value, and boatloads of taxpayer money to play with. Where's the risk, apart from the risk of being called a jackass by call-ins on a local radio station you don't actually have to listen to? Money can soothe that hurt. So can the adulation of a city, if you buy a winner.

So you can bitch about a culture that puts athletes in position to sign multi-hundred million dollar contracts. But within their context, they're worth it - they bring in those revenues to their employers, and they're the best in the world at what they do. We, for are part, are willing to pay to see them perform, and thus pay their salaries. If we're willing to pay the freight to go see them, they're worth the freight it costs to get them in uniform. And until an owner suits up and leads the coverage team on a punt return, he's not the one taking any risks at all.
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