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Blame the Bosses
Jack McCallum
October 10, 1994
The owners' unjustified demands for a salary cap have shut down two sports and threaten a third
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October 10, 1994

Blame The Bosses

The owners' unjustified demands for a salary cap have shut down two sports and threaten a third

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Players have no reason to respect many of the economic decisions made by owners, decisions affecting the revenue that would determine the parameters of any salary cap. Baseball is and the NHL was until very recently light-years behind the NBA and NFL in generating revenue through marketing and promotion—indeed, the ill-conceived Baseball Network is that sport's owners' idea of imaginative thinking. And it has come to light—the question of trust again—that some owners hide revenue (from luxury suite and advertising sales, for instance) that should be counted toward the cap, as several NBA teams were found to have done after their bookkeeping was made public in a 1990 lawsuit.

The cap is presented as a panacea for the supposed competitive inequities between rich-and/or large-market teams (such as the Toronto Blue Jays, the New York Knicks and the NHL's Blues), many of which are owned by large corporations, and small-market clubs (such as the Pittsburgh Pirates, the Utah Jazz or the Calgary Flames), many of which are owned by groups of investors. But do such inequities really exist?

Early in baseball's current labor dispute the owners released a chart, labeled The Competition Problem, showing eight teams with total revenues less than or equal to the $55 million payroll of the Blue Jays. Not too smart, guys. Four of the bottom six teams—the Montreal Expos, the Mariners, the Houston Astros and the Cleveland Indians—were in first place or within two games of first at the time of the strike, suggesting that there was little or no competitive imbalance. (The exceptions were the Padres and the Pittsburgh Pirates.) As for the $55 million Jays, they were far out of the pennant race.

Indeed, over the past 15 years, the one thing baseball can truly boast about is relative parity on the field. Excluding the newest expansion teams, the Colorado Rockies and the Florida Marlins, 23 of the 26 clubs have won division titles during that span, 18 of 26 clubs have won league championships, and 12 teams have won a World Series.

The NFL, whose mantra has been "parity" for years, hasn't done badly in this regard, either: Twenty of its 28 teams have reached the playoffs in the last three years. The NHL is a little more like the NBA, with certain teams forming mini-dynasties, but this has long been the case, and the situation has nothing to do with small-market vs. big-market considerations. Witness the 54-year Stanley Cup drought of the New York Rangers and the fact that eight of the last 11 Cup champions have been from low-revenue cities. And if the NBA's domination by five or six teams over the last few decades represents a "competition problem," it must also be acknowledged that the league reaped much benefit out of the rivalries between the super teams—the Los Angeles Lakers vs. the Boston Celtics and the Detroit Pistons vs. the Bulls, to cite two examples. Indeed, there was never less competition in the NBA than during the league's first 25 years, when the owners kept the players low-paid and tied to a single team—and when the Lakers and Celtics won 16 championships.

And look at those four recent NBA mini-dynasties now—all except the Bulls are down. In most cases, if you're down, you're eventually going to go up. If you're up, you're eventually going to go down. That is the cyclical nature of sports.

Baseball's management has oversold the notion that teams with high payrolls necessarily have a winning edge. According to the owners' figures, only the Padres ($15.5 million) have a lower payroll than the Expos (about $20.5 million). Yet Montreal had baseball's best record in this strike-shortened season, an accomplishment wrought of a solid minor league system (of which Marquis Grissom, Larry Walker, Cliff Floyd and Wil Cordero are products) and a knack for stealing players (such as Moises Alou and John Wetteland).

The Houston Rockets won the NBA championship last season even though their payroll ($16.8 million) was much less than that of the runner-up Knicks ($22.1 million) and even the struggling Celtics ($21.2 million). The Boston Bruins have always been near the bottom of the NHL's salary scale—as of last Saturday their $12.71 million payroll ranked them 19th of 26 teams—yet they've made the playoffs every year since 1968. Conversely, the Blues' profligate spending has put them at the top ($23.5 million) of the NHL payroll board but, by and large, only in the middle (they finished fourth in the Central Division last season) of the standings.

So much for competitive imbalance. As for the financial gulf that separates some teams, where is it written that money-losing owners deserve the protection of a salary cap? Baseball's chieftains like to present the Padres' Tom Werner as Exhibit A in their case for a salary cap. Werner was losing so much money, he claimed, that his only recourse was tearing down his team by trading stars like Fred McGriff, Gary Sheffield, Tony Fernandez and Darrin Jackson and letting others like Randy Myers and Benito Santiago leave. But the explanation for the Padres' losses was that Werner, a refugee from the entertainment industry, was in over his head from the beginning. He borrowed most of the $75 million he needed to buy the club in 1990 and then found out he actually needed additional funds to run it. Some owners may not deserve to be saved.

And while it sounds heartless to say, it may also be that some cities don't deserve teams. That could be the case in Montreal, where, despite a successful and well-run baseball franchise, the citizenry—hockey zealots through and through—hasn't produced a season's attendance of 2 million since 1983. Montreal already lost the Alouettes of the Canadian Football League seven years ago; there's nothing to say the Expos shouldn't suffer the same fate. Why should Montreal have a team it doesn't support when the people of St. Petersburg thirst after one?

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