SBJ/November 19 - 25, 2001/Opinion

Economics 101: League setup matters

The newspaper sports pages deliver scores, quotes and jokes, usually without straining to draw lessons, but if you've been paying attention to them lately, one of those last things has come through nonetheless. The subject is the effect of economic structure on the games we most like to watch.

Exhibit A in the impromptu classroom was the recent baseball World Series between the Arizona Diamondbacks and New York Yankees, two teams with many surface differences but the same crucial willingness to spend a lot of money for players that allowed them to contest for the top prize of the erstwhile national pastime. Exhibit B is the current campaign of the National Football League, whose members are roiling around like so many kittens on a rug, without regard for parentage, social class or previous condition of servitude.

Outside of a 7-10 at a bowling alley, a neater split would be hard to find.

Baseball's pattern of rule by oligarchy would have been clearer if the Yankees had beaten the D'backs, but the big-budget New Yorkers' championship teams of four of the previous five seasons were more than sufficient to make that point. The combination of player free agency and the lack of salary caps formed the basis for the survival of the fattest in the diamond sport, and the sky's-the-limit spending of a few teams over the last decade set it in concrete. A draft system that exempts (and, thus, throws open for bidding) the foreign-national players who are making up a growing portion of major league rosters further limits the ability of the game's have-nots to compete.

While the examples of the Boston Red Sox and Los Angeles Dodgers show that paying up for players doesn't ensure success, it's no less true that you can't succeed without doing it. Following that dictum is what made champs of Arizona after just four seasons of existence, as it did for the 1997 Florida Marlins after five years. Losing money anyhow, the Marlins slashed their payroll after their title run and not only reverted to also-ran status but also wound up on the endangered-species list.

The D'backs' ink is similarly red, and they have a reported $120 million in deferred salary obligations to boot, but managing partner Jerry Colangelo vows they won't follow the Marlins' path. If they do, though, you can be sure that the Yankees and their upper-crust colleagues will be there to pick up the pieces.

The NFL's contrasting egalitarianism dates from its long-standing practice of sharing most important revenues among its member teams. It didn't get real player free agency until 1993 — 18 years after it came to baseball — and then it tied it to a uniform team salary cap. Add in a college-player draft that covers just about all of its prospects, and schedules that allow teams with poor records to play other such unfortunates the next season, and you have a program that would have saved the Soviet Union.

The upshot has been that the addition of a coach or a few players can make a large and quick difference in an NFL team's fortunes. The St. Louis Rams went from a 4-12 won-lost record in 1998 to a 1999 league championship. Last season's Super Bowl contestants — the Baltimore Ravens and New York Giants — had gone 8-8 and 7-9 respectively the year before. Conversely, the Atlanta Falcons made the 1999 Super Bowl, then slumped to marks of 5-11 and 4-12 the next two seasons.

Several of this early season's NFL contenders — the Chicago Bears, San Diego Chargers and Cleveland Browns — were god-awful bad the year before. Teams that play well one week stink the next, and vice versa. To know who's best on any given Sunday (or Monday, or Thursday), you have to tune in and find out.

Baseball would never stand for it.

Frederick C. Klein is a columnist for SportsBusiness Journal.

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