On Sunday, the Los Angeles Rams and the New England Patriots will square off in Super Bowl LIII in Atlanta. As has been recalled repeatedly in the last few days, locally and nationally, living argument for a 100% estate tax Stan Kroenke illegally bought the then-St. Louis Rams in 2010, lied vociferously about his intent to keep the team in St. Louis, discussed his intentions to move the team to Los Angeles in interviews with Jeff Fisher less than two years later before hiring the losingest coach in NFL history to Major League his way out of town, and as a result, the value of the franchise doubled over the course of one year. The value of the Rams franchise has increased by nearly two billion dollars over the course of three years.
Like every NFL owner, New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft is a miserable jerk who should only be admired in the relative sense (i.e. “he’s not Kroenke”), but he does have one pointed advantage over Kroenke–when he purchased the team he owns, he didn’t do so under false pretenses. I’d hesitate to say Kraft did it for “the right reasons”–his return on investment has been astonishing, and had it not been for that, it’s unlikely he would have made the purchase in the first place–but he was a long-time Patriots fan who was buying the team from James Orthwein, who bought the Patriots for very much the wrong reasons. Orthwein bought the Patriots in bad faith with the intent of relocating them to his hometown. Orthwein’s hometown was St. Louis.
In 2019, Patriots fans are regarded as loud, brash, and arrogant, but ultimately rabid and passionate, and had the NFL adopted the same philosophy in 1994 for team ownership that it did in 2016, Tom Brady and Bill Belichick would be operating their smug dynasty as the St. Louis Stallions.
There are incentives for football fans outside of St. Louis to believe that the relocation of the Rams was a deserved outcome for fans not loving their team enough. The belief that St. Louis got what it deserved not only assuages fears that your team won’t skip town once it becomes financially advantageous for an already obscenely wealthy person to do so, but it allows you as a fan to take credit for them staying. “My team is still in town because I wanted it more than you did!”
In other franchise relocations, there was a chance it would backfire. It probably wouldn’t, but there was some degree of risk associated with it. When Bill Bidwill packed up the NFL’s St. Louis Cardinals and moved them to Arizona following the 1987 season, purportedly because he was unable to secure funding for a new stadium in St. Louis, it didn’t look so smooth when the team spent nearly two decades as tenants at Arizona State University’s Sun Devil Stadium. But for Stan Kroenke, as mentioned before, the move immediately paid off.
The NFL has become a behemoth not because they sell the most tickets in sports–their revenue from ticket sales lags in comparison to the other three major sports leagues (NFL teams play less than a tenth of the home games of MLB and less than a fifth of the home games of the NBA and NHL)–but because they exist in a financial bubble where they don’t have to worry about local interest. In 2017, NFL teams made $255 million each via league-wide revenue sharing alone. That year, the league’s salary cap stood at $167 million. It would take a Producers-like scheme for an NFL team to not make a profit, and the differences in revenues are microscopic from team to team. The real incentive for owners is to increase franchise value, where there is wider variance. Los Angeles is a larger market, and no amount of fan fervor in St. Louis nor fan apathy in southern California was going to change that. Stan Kroenke could have parked his football team on a soundstage. He was going to make money.
For two decades, the NFL successfully used Los Angeles as a bargaining chip to extort billions in public financing from dozens of markets, but Major League Baseball doesn’t have that luxury. Teams, notably the Oakland Athletics and Tampa Bay Rays in recent years, use the threat of relocation to try to swindle a few hundred million dollars out of local governments, but while there are several viable untapped markets in North America, such as Portland or former market Montreal, none are as obvious (or terrifying) for incumbent MLB cities as Los Angeles was to NFL cities.
As such, the odds of the St. Louis Cardinals relocating any time soon are very low. But to chalk this up to Major League Baseball being purer of heart rather than the financial upside not being there is hopelessly naive. They’ve been more subtle about it than their football counterparts, but Major League Baseball is very, very much a business.
It is the day before February, and neither Bryce Harper nor Manny Machado are employed with a Major League Baseball team. The two free agents, each shockingly accomplished and shockingly young by the standards of players typically available on the market, were supposed to set a new pace for free agent signings for years to come, particularly after the relatively stagnant market during the 2017-18 off-season. The latter aroused suspicions, but a group led by the likes of Yu Darvish and Eric Hosmer could never be fairly compared to Bryce Harper and Manny Machado.
And yet, here we are. Both players remain unsigned. As does Dallas Keuchel, as does Craig Kimbrel, as does Marwin Gonzalez, as does (following a second consecutive off-season of interminable waiting) Mike Moustakas. Three years ago, the free agent class was headlined by David Price, Zack Greinke, and Jason Heyward; Heyward, the last of these three to sign, signed on December 11. The current market stagnation seemed unthinkable.
It is looking increasingly unlikely that any free agent is going to reach previously expected heights. Perhaps some will get the years; perhaps some will get the average annual salary (this is more likely, but on shorter deals); the combination of the two seems off the table. It is entirely possible, perhaps likely, that no contract signed this off-season will reach the $252 million mark of the one Alex Rodriguez signed with the Texas Rangers. He signed that contract when I was in elementary school. I am thirty years old.
The A-Rod contract dwarfed all other MLB contracts at the time (and is still the third-richest contract ever signed), but perhaps even more shocking than the dollar amount (to be fair, the 25 year-old Rodriguez had an even more attractive recent track record than Harper or Machado have today) is the circumstances. The Rangers were a last-place team that didn’t, with the obvious exception of Rodriguez himself, have a ton of obvious signs for future improvement going forward. Outright bad teams don’t sign players to these kinds of contracts anymore–the closest comparisons would be Jayson Werth signing with the Washington Nationals or Eric Hosmer signing with the San Diego Padres, but in each of those cases, a player signed as the “veteran presence” with an acclaimed group of prospects about to ascend.
Bad teams don’t really try to claw back into respectability anymore–rather, the more popular model is the one famously practiced by the early 2010s Houston Astros, who gutted the mediocre remains of teams expected to achieve win totals in the mid-seventies in order to fall into the mid-fifties, had microscopic payrolls, and used their earned high draft picks to select the likes of Carlos Correa, and used their abundance of available playing time to attempt to find diamonds in the rough, as they did in Jose Altuve. There’s no reason this model couldn’t have worked decades earlier, except for one little thing–a 51-win team Astros team would’ve been a financial black hole, at least in the short term.
It’s not as extreme as with the NFL, where the league’s national television deals are the envy of all other entertainment avenues and not just sports, but shared revenue sources have allowed MLB teams to become less reliant on gate revenue than they were in the past. In 2017, the sale of MLB’s streaming media development BAMTech netted each MLB owner roughly $33 million, enough to cover nearly the entire current payroll of the Tampa Bay Rays. MLB’s total revenues in 1995 were $1.2 billion. This one sale netted MLB owners more than that.
Harper and Machado aren’t going unsigned because MLB teams can’t afford them; they’re going unsigned because MLB teams can afford not to sign them. Aside from his on-field value, Alex Rodriguez brought marketability and incentive to buy tickets to the Texas Rangers. The economic value of either of these players to any team in baseball is fairly low–it would be next to impossible to argue that the contracts could pay for themselves in any tangible way. Even if a player’s WAR per dollar justifies a contract, this only works in viewing if a contract is worth it for a team relative to other contracts with the end goal of winning a lot of baseball games. If a team’s motivation is simply to make a lot of money, the signings make less sense.
Team franchise values are skyrocketing. The rate of expansion in the big four professional sports isn’t close to the rate of expansion of numbers of billionaires with interest in owning a professional sports team, and the lack of supply means the demand is very high. And owners know this. Owning a sports team was once a luxury good–you could turn a profit, yes, but the team was essentially a hobby, and a fairly wholesome one compared to hunting humans for sport or whatever else it is that generationally wealthy men would be doing otherwise. Owners are buying teams because they know they can make a ton of money, and they aren’t going to do anything to jeopardize that profit.
If the only trickle-down to the fans of this thriftiness is how much players make, this probably wouldn’t have a huge impact. To be clear, it’s wildly unethical, and baseball players should make a larger share of revenues than they do (I’d rather minor leaguers and rookies make more rather than the richest of the rich players, but if my options are millionaire players or billionaire owners, I’m siding with the former), but from a fan perspective, the only real on-field difference, provided that players aren’t being low-balled to such an extent that they quit the sport (ahem), is who goes where. The players still play and the on-field product doesn’t materially change.
But this is symptomatic of a larger problem, which is that teams do not need fans to be successful. Ownership like that of the Rays have found a perfect balance–they have a miniscule payroll for a shockingly viable, wouldn’t-shock-you-too-much-if-they-made-the-playoffs roster, and their low attendance, the result of their own historic thriftiness and the inaccessibility of their stadium to the bulk of the Tampa area’s population, allows them plausibility when they advocate for a new, publicly financed stadium or for relocation to Portland. The Rays will see their franchise value swell even if attendance doesn’t pick up and even if their on-field product deteriorates. If they move, it may explode. And thousands of Rays fans, maligned and dismissed as non-existent despite the obvious fact that their games aren’t attended by nobody, could be cast aside. And we could shrug our shoulders and tell ourselves it’s the fault of fans if that makes us feel like we’ve earned having the St. Louis Cardinals.
Rooting for the St. Louis Rams, as I did until the extremely bitter end, was difficult. Aside from their half-decade of dominance in the late 1990s and early 2000s, they were consistently terrible. But I jumped at any chance I had to go to the Edward Jones Dome for a game because that was my team, and that’s what fandom meant to me. The same applies, and has always applied, to my fandom for the St. Louis Cardinals, but with the Cardinals, it’s much easier. There isn’t a going concern. The team has had only three losing seasons since I started following the team at age seven, and two of those seasons had the lovely consolation prize of historic Mark McGwire home run paces. Everybody I know is a Cardinals fan, unlike the Dallas Cowboys or Green Bay Packers fandoms that surrounded me during the miserable Rams seasons (though not during the good Rams seasons, though this is surely a coincidence).
The loss of the Rams forced me to realize a harsh reality–my fandom didn’t matter to anyone but myself. There was nothing I could have done to prevent my childhood team from leaving, and no amount of anger was going to make most people care about it happening. And maybe that’s the way it is supposed to be–that people enjoy sports for the artistry of the games and not because of attached, contrived provincial loyalties. It’s the way I consume NBA basketball, for the most part–enjoying the spectacle and being excited for whoever the Golden State Warriors play in the finals to maybe win a game this year.
But I don’t feel that same connection that I do to baseball, even when the Cardinals are eliminated. I became a fan of baseball through the Cardinals–I could watch the Boston Red Sox and Los Angeles Dodgers play and know that my team, the band of players whose existence had such an impact on my day-to-day life, could be there next year. I don’t know if Baltimore Orioles fans could tell themselves the same thing last year. I don’t know if Miami Marlins fans even cared.
There is something vital to me about caring about a team, or caring about a player, and not just watching players on the field as though they are ants scurrying across a colony. That this was my entry point into caring about sports, and contrasting this humanized view to the events of baseball and the events of sports over the last several years, makes me wonder if that can continue.