Late into the Game 7 broadcast preceding the Astros’ 2017 World Series victory, the FOX broadcast team devolved into an insulting-yet-fitting discussion of the devastating floods following Hurricane Harvey. The story goes that Houston Astros players kept photos of devastation in their lockers, so as to remind them of their relatively easy jobs; the story goes, “you think you had a bad day at the plate, look at what people are dealing with in Houston.” If you cringed, too, you had an arguably proper reaction to what is the equivalent of disaster tourism, millionaire (or near-millionaire) elite professionals easing their own performative anxieties by feasting on visions of destruction faced by less fortunate people.
FOX’s diversion was insulting, insofar as what the residents of Houston needed was public officials using specific land use regulations, zoning, and development restrictions to mitigate their metro area from predictable damage; if that need went unheeded for seven decades in Houston, what the residents needed prior to Harvey was a group of local politicians and bureaucrats that took climate science seriously following three 500-year floods in three years. Insulting because, “You were failed by your City, but at least your sports team won a championship” is the same type of booster nonsense that sells publicly-financed sports venues intended as a conduit for television revenues and for the use by a small minority of the population.
Yet, this broadcast diversion into disaster tourism was also a fitting metaphor for a fanbase forced to watch three consecutive 100-loss seasons during a local cable television battle. The insinuation being, of course, that enduring three consecutive 100-loss seasons could not possibly be as bad as enduring the public sector failure and land use carnage unleashed by three consecutive 500-year floods, and anyway, now the beleaguered residents of Houston have championship rings they can point to. The fanbase of the Astros are somehow assumed to be “rewarded” for sitting through an intentionally anti-competitive roster building strategy as though the ends somehow justify the means.
Rebuilding is indeed a fitting strategy for austerity America, in which members of a multi-billion dollar entertainment industry collude to drive down the labor share of revenue under the guise of “analytical professionalism” that delivers resounding success to a roster (spoiler alert: you can win a lot of games with an offense headlined by Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa, Alex Bregman, and George Springer. Analytics to the rescue!). What is concerning about this development is that professional baseball is simultaneously sold to the public as some kind of municipal service, a simple and welcome entertainment diversion from the hell of everyday life, yet also an industry in which it is apparently so difficult to construct a contending team that many consecutive (intentionally anti-competitive) losing seasons are required in order to design a winner. The 2016 Cubs ostensibly used this model (although they arguably “purchased” a World Series much more than Houston did), and that the 2017 Astros’ version of the scorched earth rebuild also succeeded signals to owners to visit the scorched earth for their own tear-down rebuilds: the disgusting strategy now has the perfect cover insofar as “two consecutive World Series champions prove its success!,” imploring owners to double down on their anti-labor strategy of shifting revenue from the MLB roster to the minor leagues (see Brewers, Milwaukee, in this category as well).
What is problematic here is that neither the municipal booster argument (“Winning baseball is a public service!”) nor the scorched earth rebuild argument (“Losing creates winning!”) withstand a simple observation in which baseball is sport. The former is used to subsidize operating expenses in order to maximize television revenues that flow through venues, while the latter is used to justify exceptional ownership profits and decreasing shares of MLB revenues to players. Milwaukee is not immune to either of these criticisms, as Owner Mark Attanasio doubled profits for his group between 2015 and 2016, raking in $58.2 million while the Brewers won 73 games, all the while continuing to accept operating subsidies at Miller Park. (If someone from the Brewers would like to publicly announce that the $58.2 million in revenue indeed was used to retire operating debt at Miller Park, that would be a fantastic counterfactual to the current state of affairs in MLB). 2017 will be no better look for the Brewers ownership group, who doubled down on drawing revenue away from the MLB roster while purchasing a minor league ballclub all while the MLB club missed the playoffs by two games (further: do they pay the Carolina Mudcats living wages?).
Being a baseball fan within this environment is a bundle of contradictions. It’s simple enough to say that Championships are great (they are) and contending is entertaining (the 2017 Brewers season, for example, was thrilling). I love the sport, and feel its athletes are better than ever, producing a quality entertainment product. The players are great. What is problematic is the ownership-media enterprise that sells these wicked diversions, these ideals that somehow it is acceptable to use an “ends justify the means” anti-competitive, austerity strategy in a multi-billion dollar, antitrust protected entertainment industry. In this regard, the seemingly simple statements that “the Astros championship makes life better for Houston residents” or “the Astros championship justifies their tanking strategy” must be rejected in every possible aspect.
Photo Credit: Jayne Kamin-Oncea, USA Today Sports Images.