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MLB teams are prioritizing profit over winning and that’s not good for the sport

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It’s becoming pretty obvious, and that does not bode well for baseball’s future.

“Hmmm. Little dollars or the big dollar?”
Photo by Mary Turner/Getty Images

SCOTTSDALE, Arizona — It’s a rainy day in the Valley of the Sun, so indulge me while I tell you a rather long rainy-day type story.

Thursday morning at Hardball Talk, Craig Calcaterra, a writer whose opinions I greatly respect, posted a 2,400-word article titled “Braves think their fans are idiots.”

Well now, that is a provocative headline. You’d click on that, most probably, even if you weren’t a regular reader of Craig’s writing. He begins by stating he’s been a Braves fan for 35 years, enjoyed the good run they had in the 1990s and early 2000s, and even some of the bad times.

But then:

But I’m having a really, really hard time enjoying the Braves at the moment because, quite simply, the team’s front office thinks I’m a friggin’ moron.

That’s the only conclusion I can draw from this interview of Braves team president Terry McGuirk and general manager Alex Anthopoulos, conducted by David O’Brein and Jeff Schultz of The Athletic. It’s a masterwork of condescension, dishonesty and, at the end of the day, constitutes a clear signal that the Braves care about profits, first, second, third and foremost. “Sure, winning baseball is pretty spiffy, but let’s not keep our eyes off the prize, which is ‘financial flexibility,’” the Braves brass seems to be telling us.

This isn’t a very different argument from those made by pretty much every single front office of every single baseball team right now, including the Cubs. If profits weren’t the most important thing, why would two of the best baseball players around, Bryce Harper and Manny Machado, right at the age (26) where they should be at the peak of their athletic abilities, sitting home as spring training begins without a team to play for?

Craig goes on to talk about what many teams have said in the last couple of years — that they would have money to spend after being frugal in past offseasons, only to hear the words “financial flexibility” bandied about. Here’s what Craig Calcaterra thinks about “financial flexibility”:

Dude, fans don’t root for “flexibility.” “Flexibility” flags don’t fly forever. The alpha and omega of fans’ concern about “financial flexibility” — the only reason any of us care about payroll and budgets and stuff — is the degree to which those things make it more or less likely for the team we root for to acquire good players and win consistently. We’re not rooting for your bottom line or your ability to go into a meeting with your bosses and say that you still have some budget left over for fiscal 2020.

There’s the crux of the matter right in one paragraph. That and high ticket prices are the primary reasons overall MLB attendance went down in 2018 over 2017, and with many teams either tanking or exhibiting “financial flexibility” right now, attendance might very well go down again in 2019. Of course, with teams (including the Cubs) now enticing well-off fans with new high-end clubs and other entertainment options besides, you know, baseball at the ballpark, revenues might go up even as attendance goes down.

Does that matter? Hell yes it matters! If large numbers of fans are going to stop going to your team’s games, maybe they eventually stop watching the games on television. Or talking about them with their friends in person or on social media.

There’s a lot more regarding Braves finances in Craig’s article and that’s not really relevant to us as Cubs fans except that the Cubs seem to be operating the same way — and it’s not just the Cubs, either, it’s industry-wide. I have no doubt that the baseball operations department of the Cubs and the Cubs baseball players and coaches want very much to win. That’s in the DNA of any baseball person.

But the business side of the Cubs, and the 29 other baseball teams, seem more focused on profit these days. Don’t get me wrong: I am well aware that baseball teams are businesses and I do not begrudge them making money. But the costs of attending a baseball game or even being a fan and buying team merchandise have soared to the point where they’re getting difficult to afford for the middle-class fan, or maybe even any fan who isn’t wealthy. There is, I think, a difference between “making money” and “greed.”

I stopped in the gift shop at Sloan Park after I watched the team workout the other day and prices for caps, T-shirts and other Cubs memorabilia ranged, in my view, from “unreasonable” to “outrageous,” up significantly from a year ago. Could this be the year that even the average Cubs spring-training fan, who is generally on vacation and not caring much about the costs of souvenirs, balk at those prices?

The conclusion of Craig Calcaterra’s article sums things up for me:

They depend on fans believing that we’re all in this together for the glory of baseball and victory and all of that stuff. That is why they craft their euphemisms they way they do. That is why, when they do not appear to be doing things that will help the team win in the short term, they couch the moves in terms of “sustained success,” with the implicit promise that more winning will come later even if it doesn’t come now. That is why they explain seemingly cheap moves as moves that “maintain financial flexibility,” with the implicit promise that while money is not being spent now, it will be spent later. That is why, when they pass on a seemingly fantastic free agent, they focus attention to the potentially bad final years of a contract rather than focus on the early years in which a championship might be won, implicitly casting the free agent as sour grapes best not eaten.

If front office brass were honest about that stuff — if they talked about how they care more about profit than winning — the relationship between teams and fans would look very different than it does. It would make leveraging the passion of fans into revenue much, much harder because, let’s face it, we buy merchandise and tickets and vote to increase our taxes to subsidize their stadiums because we think it’s about winning, not because we think about how we’re increasing the revenue of a multi-billion dollar conglomerate like Liberty Media.

I’ll repeat what I wrote above: I absolutely believe Cubs players and coaches and the baseball ops folks want to win. I believe Tom Ricketts wants the Cubs to win. But I find myself leaning toward Craig Calcaterra’s conclusion that the overall philosophy of baseball teams in 2019 seems to be pointing more toward “profit” than “winning.” It’s not just the Braves, as detailed in Craig’s article. It’s the entire industry.

And they do so at their peril.