Baseball

Imagining an MLB without Owners

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For far too long, 30 mostly anonymous super-rich individuals have dominated baseball at the expense of fans and players alike. Their greed and short-sightedness have led directly to work stoppages, tanking teams, stolen wages, soaring ticket prices, and plain bad rule changes.

Baseball Wealth Exceeds Need for Owners

A century ago, owners served a purpose. Baseball as an organized, professional sport was a novel idea. While Americans had played the game for generations, creating a league or leagues of teams with paid players, sizable stadiums, and standardized equipment and marketing required heavy investment initially and for a period of years. Players and fans simply lacked the money and organizational devotion to manufacture what eventually became Major League Baseball.

In 1890, the players revolted against the reserve clause and greedy owners hoarding the wealth their labor created. Yet, the players themselves and the fans writ large still lacked the capital necessary to sustain the Players League.

At this point in the national pastime’s development, however, heavy capital investment from billionaires is no longer necessary. Professional baseball is well-established, self-sustaining, and incredibly wealthy. In the last season before the pandemic, conservative estimates place Major League Baseball’s annual revenue at $10.7 billion. Club valuation is likewise stratospheric. The Kansas City Royals, a small market team if ever there was one, just sold for $1 billion. This transaction netted department store tycoon David Glass a whopping $904 million dollars from his purchase of the club for a (relatively) mere $96 million. Few, if any, investments, yield this kind of big money return.

Owners Serve Little Purpose

This author challenges readers to name three good reasons why 30 super-rich individuals should be allowed to continue to dominate our national pastime. Go on, and please comment if you have even one!

At this stage of baseball’s evolution, owners are essentially middlemen that take money from fans and provide a portion to players and front offices. The aforementioned Royals, for instance, sold for $1 billion but spent only $73 million on player salaries. Meanwhile, Royals ticket prices have risen from an average of $13.71 in 2006 to $32.84 in 2019, far outpacing inflation. This one club example is fairly representative of MLB as a whole.

MLB created revenue of approximately $10.7 billion in 2019. Unfortunately, the owners kept a hefty chunk of that money, took it out of baseball, and hid it away in their own bank accounts.

The money hoarded by these members of the ultra-rich could be spent on building better teams, development of the game, or given back to the fans in the form of cheaper tickets. Removing the unnecessary drains of owners from baseball’s coffers would do wonders, but how would MLB be run?

Empower Front Offices

The players would certainly take the lead (more on that later), but some checks will ensure competition and prevent restrictive cartels that keep out good young players in favor of established, aging veterans. Imbuing front offices with the authority to make player transactions, marketing choices, and other non-playing decisions is a must.

Rather than an individual owner choosing the membership of these front offices, a combination of staff and players (and perhaps even fans) would select a presiding officer. That presiding officer would have authority to name additional staff and run the front office. It might be wise to elect a presiding officer to a fixed-year term. Five years seems right, as that would provide enough opportunity for the presiding officer to enact her or his vision for the team.

Players Are Ready to Lead

After the struggles of should-be Hall of Famers like Curt Flood, players forced owners to abolish the hated and grotesque reserve clause. Free agency has existed for half a century, and players have been thoroughly enriched. Unlike their 1890 predecessors, players have the means to control their sport without the need of moneyed owners.

Abolishing the owners is the next logical step, and such a move would further make even truer the notion that Curt Flood was not blackballed in vain.

Possible Salary Structure

Fans the nation over have voiced some version of this complaint for years: free agency is surely good for the players, but it does have a cost. Players switch teams fairly frequently, seeking the highest wage possible. Teams sometimes get loaded down with salary costs provided to struggling or injured players, making it difficult to compete. This high turnover and inefficient labor cost allocation results in fan disappointment and, at its worst, apathy.

Players, too, have voiced concerns with the current system of distributing compensation. As sabermetrics have uncovered the reality that players have their greatest impact in their mid-20s and younger, front offices have increasingly passed on expensive contracts with established veterans in favor of cost-controlled and talented youngsters. Moreover, older players signing big contracts are essentially being paid for past performance or two to three years of hopefully decent or excellent stats before their inevitable decline.

There is a better way.

Instead of this inefficient system, MLB without owners could adopt a fairer, smarter, and stronger paradigm. Using MLB’s $10.7 billion in revenue from 2019 as a guide:

ExpensesPercentAmount
Salary50%$5,350,000,000
Benefits17%$1,783,333,316
Operations22%$2,354,000,000
Development6%$642,000,000
Charity5%$535,000,000

Turning away from contracts and moving toward universal performance incentives, something like this could serve as a template:

CategoryAmountPlayersTotal
All Players$1,000,0001,501$1,501,000,000
Postseason$2,000,000312$624,000,000
Top 300 position players by games$4,000,000300$1,200,000,000
Position players 301-500 by games$2,000,000200$400,000,000
Top 150 pitchers by innings$4,000,000150$600,000,000
Top 100 WAR leaders$2,100,000100$210,000,000
Pitchers 150-250 by innings$2,000,000100$200,000,000
World Series rosters$2,000,00052$104,000,000
Best regular season league record$2,000,00052$104,000,000
38 MVP Vote Runners-up$2,100,00038$79,800,000
38 Aaron Vote Runners-up$2,100,00038$79,800,000
38 Young Vote Runners-up$2,100,00038$79,800,000
Golden Gloves Winners$2,100,00018$37,800,000
All-MLB First Team$5,300,00010$53,000,000
All-MLB Second Team$3,000,00010$30,000,000
All-MLB Third Team$2,000,00010$20,000,000
MVP Winners$4,200,0002$8,400,000
Aaron Winners$4,100,0002$8,200,000
Young Winners$4,100,0002$8,200,000
Rookie of the Year Winners$1,000,0002$2,000,000

Without owners, with full (or nearly full) revenue sharing, and a performance-based compensation system, teams will be liberated from their current shackles. Front offices will have the freedom to keep fan favorites. Winning will be further incentivized. A free agent will look for a team that needs someone who plays his position or maybe a club that is closer to home or has a winning tradition or coveted culture. Even better, such a system would allow players to stay with their current clubs without having to venture away for more money. Fans would see more of their stars stay with their favorite team for their careers.

With money taken out of the team selection equation, baseball can be a purer and more entertaining sport.

Main image credit Embed from Getty Images

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