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On Thursday, MLB commissioner Rob Manfred addressed the media following the quarterly meeting of the league’s owners. There… well, he said a lot of Manfred things, but none more Manfred than his declaration that owning an MLB team is a worse form of investing than the stock market. I don’t want to tackle how that looks from a Business Point of View, because it’s the kind of lie the wealthy who own sports teams want to be told in order to let them continue to operate in this exclusive, money-printing club with little questioning of where their money comes from, but I do want to discuss why we should consider this a lie in the first place.
I’m not even talking about an in-depth look at whether the numbers provided by the investment banker hired by MLB to tell the league they’re all good boys and girls who have been mistreated by the wicked press and players ring true or not. Just like, look at MLB’s history when it comes to how they talk about money, and how they hide how good the owners actually have it, and extrapolate from there.
Back in the mid-80s, when Peter Ueberroth took over as commissioner and the seeds of collusion were planted in his meetings with the owners, he berated the lot of them for caring more about winning and the prestige of owning a team than the money that could be made from treating it like the businesses that got them the money to buy teams in the first place. I’ve used this before, and I will use it again, but this Ueberroth quote from Lords of the Realm shows how he got through to them:
“Let’s say I sat each of you down in front of a red button and a black button,” he said at one early meeting. “Push the red button and you’d win the World Series but lose $10 million. Push the black button and you would make $4 million and finish somewhere in the middle.”
He paused to look around. “The problem is, most of you would push the red one.”
Ueberroth chided them for checking their business sense at the door. “You are so damned dumb.”
All we’ve had in the years since — more of them than I have been alive, by the way — is a normalization and hardening of this business-first sense beaten into the owner class by Ueberroth, and it reached its zenith with the 2016 collective bargaining agreement. Instead of outright collusion, like under Ueberroth, MLB made sure they created a number of loopholes they could exploit in fair-and-square bargaining, and then drove a truck through the service time manipulation one while ramping up how much they leaned on pre-arbitration players and ignored all but the highest-end free agents. It was enough to shock the system of the players, who realized they were not bargaining with a league operating in good faith, and now, here we are.
Owners aren’t buying teams just for the prestige of owning a club. At least, not the kind of prestige you’d associate with fielding a winning ball club. Now, the prestige comes from owning the kind of business that lets you exploit tax loopholes written specifically for sports teams. Now it comes from operating inside of a business where you do not need to open your books unless you are the Braves, and are owned by a publicly traded corporation, to the point that even the value of the massive regional television deals are secrets to the players. Of course, the Braves just have to lie a little bit less than the rest thanks to this: it’s not like the part of American business that resides on Wall Street is on the up and up. It comes from being in the half of the league that is considered “small market” and is eligible for revenue-sharing dollars, which plenty of those teams outright pocket while claiming the funds have been spent on [mumbles incoherently]. It comes from being able to sell tiny fractions of the team to minority owners for a larger chunk of change than was paid for, and then selling the entire enterprise after a decade or two or so for three or 10 times what it was purchased for, depending. It comes from having the public’s tax dollars pay for your team’s stadium, which increases a franchise’s value, and then using that higher valuation to take out low-interest, effectively no-limit loans to finance real estate deals, the profits from which can then be designated as non-baseball revenue despite where the seed money for the deals came from, and despite the fact that Liberty Media has a real estate position in the front office of their Major League Baseball team.
Please recall that it was less than two years ago that the league’s position was that they were going to lose too much money to make a longer 2020 season worth it to them, thanks to the lack of fans and gate, and because of this, they wanted the players to take a second pay cut beyond simply prorating their salaries to however many games were played. When the players told the owners to prove this was the case, they sent heavily redacted “proof” over, then dropped the whole issue, because not opening up their books and keeping their many secrets secret was worth more to them than winning that particular battle. And yet, we’re supposed to believe that an MLB team is a bad investment for the wealthy? We shouldn’t be believing anything they say, at this point, especially not when it comes to money.
Earlier this week, I wrote about how too many of MLB’s journalists, especially at legacy outlets, fall for every trap MLB sets out for them. So here’s a short list of people who did not fall for things in the two days since.
Craig Goldstein, at Baseball Prospectus, wrote something along the same general lines as me on Wednesday, as well. But you should read his, too, because it’s great, and different than mine despite our shared exasperation at the Scott Boras thing.
Deesha Thosar broke down how we got to the point where it was expected Manfred would be announcing a delay to spring training, and actually pointed fingers where they needed to be pointed in the process.
Now, we didn’t get that announcement, but it’s because MLB and the union are meeting on Saturday. And as Hannah Keyser pointed out, that’s a strategic play by MLB, so that when no significant progress is made following whatever proposal MLB submits this time around, the players can be blamed for it instead of the league.
Emma Baccellieri is not having any of Manfred’s blame-shifting bullshit.
- And Evan Drellich reminds you all that what happens on Saturday during bargaining means a lot more than whatever Manfred says to the press on a Thursday.
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