Since discussions of competitive balance always seem to bring some
comments out of the wood works on this blog, I thought I'd weigh in on
the ones from the most recent entry, especially my friend's, jfromta.
First - let me address the 18% variance issue. It's not, in fact, huge - it was overstated in a comment when it originally came up earlier in the season. According to the wages of wins authors, the figure means that 18% of the variance in wins from team to team is accounted for by payroll. Thus, if one team wins 40 more games than another team, roughly seven of those wins can be attributed to payroll. At a ten-win variance, about two wins, and so on...Trivial? no. Earth-shattering? Hardly. Some other studies attribute greater weight to payroll's effect on wins, others less. And, these data are, of course, statistical estimates, not statements of fact, so do with them what you will.
But, there is a more fundamental point that jfromta keeps missing. I never called the current system "fair." In fact, I have explicity said otherwise. Of course the Yankees have incomparably more resources than the Royals and of course that is an advantage. I have never seen or heard anyone argue to the contrary. What has happened though, is that the arguments about the meaning of that advantage have never succeeded in connecting the dots to larger arguments about the overall health of the sport. And, that is for a simple reason: as payroll disparities (that's the unfair part) have increased dramatically over the past five years, especially between the very top teams and the very bottom teams, the overall health of the sport - whether in terms of competitive balance on the field or in terms of profitability - has only improved. One is entitled to be "unconvinced" by that, but it should be obvious that those two indisputable trends - greater disparities/greater health
- put the burden of proof on the sky-is-falling crowd to explain why that is so.
That the Yankees make the playoffs every year is, of course, in part related to their resource advantage. But, let me ask a question: is that really actually bad for baseball? Do you think the executives at FOX or ESPN or in the commissioner's office, for example, think the baseball postseason would be a bigger draw without them? If the Yankees were winning every single year, this would be one kind of argument. But, if they're simply one of eight entrants every year, aside from being arguably unfair, what's so bad about that? And, honestly, do you think the Yankees' advantage is the reason the Royals are so bad? In fact, it's arguably the case that the bigger problem with the system isn't that the Yankees make so much money - it's that their revenues ensure that the Royals' ownership can make a profit without having to lift a finger to improve their baseball team. As a Yankee fan, I don't really care. Were I a Royals fan, and I understood the issues, I'd be steaming.
To continue to harp on unfairness, without any larger argument about the overall health of the sport - competitively speaking or profitability-wise is simply to miss the whole point of the discussion. To repeat, on both counts, the sport's health has indisputably improved in the past five years, in spite of growing payroll disparities. And, regardless of the world series outcome this year, the recent trends will have only continued - the sport's profits continue to grow - another middle payroll team, of the sort that pre-2002 Commissioner Bud used to argue supposedly couldn't even compete, will win the world series and between 75 and 80 million people will show up to watch a major league game in person again next year.
Since the main purpose of this blog is to talk about media - I'll close with a comment about that. Sports media before the 2002 collective bargaining agreement used to faithfully parrot Commissioner Bud's ludicrous claims about how the sport was dying because of disparities between small and large market teams. Then he signed onto a collective bargaining agreement (about to be renewed) which has, as Baseball Prospectus and Andrew Zimbalist have explained, clearly and indisputably, worsened those disparities. And since the 2002 agreement, Commissioner Bud has been increasingly peachy about the health of the sport and the baseball media have spent far less time talking about it since, except to point out the Yankees' ever-swelling payroll. The continued failure to understand what's meaningful and what's not in baseball's economic arrangements is one of the big missed stories by the people covering the sport. Harping on the Yankees payroll misses a larger issue - the system indulges owners who have no real interest in putting a competitive team on the field. That sucks for the fans of those cities. What it says about the sport as a whole is a different matter.