The Salary Cap Fallacy

Baseball’s back!

Which means that, once again, it’s time for media blowhards to take unmerited potshots at the sport, even as baseball’s leaders bend over backwards trying to fix a system that isn’t broken. Even worse, the Yankees won the World Series last year, so everyone’s up in a lather about payroll disparity, revenue sharing, salary caps, and those poor, poor small-market teams in need of bigger handouts.

Bud Selig, baseball’s very own Robert Mugabe, has formed a competition committee, which is noodling over such brilliant ideas as rolling divisional realignment. Why? To break up the Yankees and Red Sox, of course. Because a sport can’t possibly survive with two such dominant powers (who have combined to win only 3 of the last 10 World Series) on the landscape.  Poor Toronto has no chance to make the playoffs because of those two! (Note: this is only because Toronto is fucking terrible.)

And, of course, there are the renewed cries for a salary cap. Sports Illustrated’s resident Cryptkeeper, Frank DeFord, penned a column claiming baseball is too predictable because it doesn’t have a cap. The essence of his inane, yet all too common, argument:

“And as long as there is no salary cap to equalize things, the Yankees and a few other rich teams are going to buy championships, while the little old mid-major cities really can’t compete.”

Yep, we hear this so much it’s become accepted fact. Baseball’s system is unfair. The Yankees and Red Sox (but especially the Yankees) buy championships. The other teams don’t have a fair shot at competing. Baseball needs to adopt a hard salary cap, like the other major sports. The revenue sharing and luxury tax penalties currently in place aren’t enough.

There’s only one problem with this line of reasoning — it’s complete bullshit.

First of all, the business of baseball has never been healthier. For all the talk of how the NFL has put baseball in its rearview mirror, MLB is setting new records for total revenue virtually every year, and the last time the two sports released revenue numbers, seemed on the verge of passing the NFL in revenue, thanks to a superior digital media strategy and international cash streams.

But there’s something endemic to the game of baseball that causes people to worry for its health, to keep it on a constant deathwatch. I think it’s the nostalgia factor: what people see on the field, and in the newspapers, can’t possibly compare to the imagined past, with Dimaggio gliding gracefully across centerfield in black and white, and our grandfathers sharing bags of peanuts with our Dads in the bleachers. Because baseball’s past is so filled with lore, and because there’s so much baggage connected to the term “America’s Pastime,” the present never seems to measure up, especially with the ugly steroids stories serving as a constant backdrop and the game’s own owners and commissioners constantly, idiotically bashing the sport for their own selfish ends.

Baseball’s fine. At least until Bud Selig does something to harm it anew. But nobody think it’s fine, and so they search for someone to blame and something to fix. And time and again, the Yankees, Red Sox and the lack of a salary cap fall in the crosshairs.

The game would be so much more fair with a salary cap, they cry. We wouldn’t see the same teams winning every year! A cap would allow small-market teams to retain their homegrown stars. Well…no, no and no.

There exists absolutely no proof that a salary cap increases parity. The only thing a salary cap actually accomplishes is just what its name implies — it limits player salaries. And the only people that benefit from a salary cap are team owners, who can then keep more cash in their pockets without justifying it to fans and the media. Miserly owners instigate and inflame the pro-cap propaganda (just ask Brewers’ owner Mark Attansio), claiming to be looking out for the good of the sport, but all they care about is their bottom line.

I looked at the past ten completed seasons in the NFL, MLB, NBA and NHL: baseball, and three other major sports leagues that all have had salary caps in place. The MLB and NHL have each had 8 champions in that span, while the NHL has had 7 and the NBA has had 5. Huh. Doesn’t really seem like baseball has a competition issue from that standpoint.

But let’s dig deeper, because playoffs in any sport can be a crapshoot, to varying degrees. The regular season is probably a more accurate measure of excellence, or at least competitiveness. So I looked at how many times in the past decade teams from each sport finished with one of the 10 best records in their respective league. The NFL, that paragon of parity, had 27 teams finish with one of the 10 best records at least once in the last 10 years. The NBA and NHL each had 26 teams accomplish that feat, and MLB had 25 teams. So, basically even across the board.

Moreover, as we see below, the distribution of the number of teams in each league who finished with a top 10 record in any number of the past 10 years is also essentially even.

Each league has a couple dominant teams who finished with a top 10 record just about every year: the Yankees, the Colts, the Spurs and Mavericks, and the Red Wings and Devils. Each league has a fairly sizable middle class of teams that finished with a top 10 record 3-6 times in 10 years. And each league has a handful of teams that got lucky and snuck onto the list once or twice. (See the full list here: TopTenFinishes).

Three leagues that have a salary cap, and one league that doesn’t, break down almost exactly the same: there are some consistently good teams, some terrible teams, and some teams that vacillate between the two poles. Even within baseball, the number of times teams had good seasons isn’t ordered by revenue. Yes, the Yankees and Red Sox are up top, but the Twins, A’s and Indians all fared well. Meanwhile, the big-market Cubs and the free-spending Orioles are further down the list.

So…a salary cap in baseball would accomplish what, exactly? For one thing, it would take asshole owners who don’t care about winning, like Jeffrey Loria, off the hook. As it stands now, the Yankees contribute about $150 million per season to small-market teams through the luxury tax and revenue sharing. And many of those teams, like the Marlins and Royals, put that money right into their bank accounts, instead of toward payroll as was intended.

Is having more cash an advantage for teams? Of course, or at least it can be, when paired with an owner who cares about winning and a front office with some measure of intelligence. It has always been thus. But let’s all stop pretending that money is the be-all, end-all of winning in baseball. If that were true, the Yankees or Red Sox would win the World Series every single season. And let’s stop claiming that a salary cap is a panacea, when there’s no proof that there’s even a disease in need of a cure.

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1 Comment

Filed under Sports Has AIDS, The Dilemma

One response to “The Salary Cap Fallacy

  1. Pingback: The Fundamental Ontological Riddles of our Time « Pop Culture Has AIDS

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