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A near-vacant venue in Melbourne, Australia, and MLB spending

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What do these two things have to do with each other? More than you might think.

Photo by Quinn Rooney/Getty Images

My second favorite sport is Australian football. A decent part of it is how the timing works. Teams play for half an hour or so, then take a five minute break. Then, they play for another half hour, and take a longer break. Then, the second half is a repeat of the first for timing, You know when to take a bathroom break, and get ready for the longer haul. Even if a game is non-competitive, the chatter of Aussie accents works for my ears. Toss in that the games are ideally timed for a night owl with an entirely broken sense of normalcy. A bit more than a month ago, a tilt between the top two teams in the AFL went off completely without spectators (pictured above). That likely caught the attention of most MLB owners.

In a light-hearted moment between Michael J. Fox’s character and that of Meredith Baxter-Birney’s on Family Ties, the son quipped to his mom that they had a rather good relationship for being at cross-purposes. When talking about fans and owners, that concept comes often to mind. Fans want their teams to win, and don’t really care much, often, about the semantics. For owners, making money is the entire reason for ownership. Winning helps, but the goal is making money. Even in bad years.

For roughly 20 years, I worked for a minor league basketball team. Wayne Timpe was the owner of the Rockford Lightning. He enjoyed being an owner, but he had trouble making any money. After trying everything under the sun to provide civic pride and make money, he capitulated. The Lightning folded, and with that, I lost most of my interest in basketball. (I still want the Bulls to win, but I have no investment in the team, emotionally or mentally.) I retained my interest for things minor league and development, and changed lanes.

Timpe gave up because he wasn’t making money. He was losing it. People who own things usually own things to make money. Shares of stock. Businesses. Yeah, there can be “enjoyment” in the equation, but the general idea of ownership is to make money. The same carries for MLB owners. Tom Ricketts is an MLB owner, and might well be more similar to other MLB owners than dissimilar. He wanted the Cubs to win because it would make him money. The financial component matters. To the owner.

Which leads to the Yu Darvish trade. Many fans like to toss off the Yu Darvish trade as a bit of a “what if?” What if the trade hadn’t happened? The Cubs could be in first place, et cetera.

Owners own teams to make money. Ricketts wanted to make money, regardless what happened with attendance. Ricketts almost certainly told Jed Hoyer to get under a certain financial marker in the off-season. The Darvish trade accomplished that. Had the Darvish trade not happened, any financial edict from the owner to the executive would have still been in place. What trade would have happened, had the Darvish trade not happened, to get the Cubs under the limit? Would Kris Bryant have been flipped for three teenagers? Or Anthony Rizzo been swapped for a gathering at a local pizza eatery? The financial angles of MLB are always present, whether in the foreground or background.

But, Tim. COVID is disappearing. Even many minor league parks are at full attendance. All of the bad stuff is in the rearview mirror. All the spending can, should, and will go back to up, up, and up.

Tell that to the people who bought tickets for the Western Bulldogs game against the Melbourne Demons that weekend. The game was played with no fans. With no tickets sold. Making money is still a large part of why owners own teams. Even in uncertain times. Ticket sales are no longer guaranteed. That players want raises, and owners want to clamp down on spending makes for “cross purposes” between the sides in the upcoming Collective Bargaining Agreement squabble. If the wrong things happen, games with fans can go away in a rather rapid order. Considering “the worst that can happen” is a large part of being an owner. Of anything.

Given the choice of spending extra for a rather remote chance for a title, most owners will lean toward “minding revenue” in most cases.

Toss in recent discussion of a Delta variant of COVID, and more than one MLB owner will likely be less willing to spend aggressively this off-season. Will that please fans? Of course not. Am I expecting sympathy for the Ricketts clan below? Certainly not. The reality is, what fans want is often a benevolent ruler of a team owner, willing to spend recklessly and aggressively for every title.

That's not happening. Could ownership being less aggressive limit your attention or spending? Certainly. However, owners tend to have spending limits. In all sports. With the potential of a repeat of vacant stadiums due to the Delta variant, look for spending to be more "what it will be" than "what fans of the team prefer."