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Rebuilding is a Scam

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.

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6 comments on “Rebuilding is a Scam”

Steve

So, should I take that to mean you’d prefer the Selig years of signing Jeffrey Hammonds to try to go from 73 wins to 75 wins?

There isn’t a Houston Astros fan in the world that would trade last night for a possibly competitive team during the 100+ loss years. There’s not a Brewer fan alive, save perhaps yourself, who wouldn’t gladly take 320 losses the next three years if it meant a title in, say, 2023.

Your points aren’t necessarily wrong–even if they are even more self-righteous than usual. But baseball is a business, and the owners are there to make profit. That’s what they’re doing. They are rational, amoral actors soaking everybody they can (taxpayers, minor leaguers, cable customers, etc.) for every dime they can. The only difference between MLB and any other business is that–except for the Apple cult–no business besides sports has customers that are this devoted to the folks trying to take their money.

The players, by the way, are guilty here too. It’s easy to pile on the owners for minor league pay and for the team control/arbitration rules, but the MLBPA is pretty pleased to inflate player salaries at the expense of the guys who are in high school when the CBA gets hammered out.

You’re really left with a choice. Is the system so rotten that you decide it’s not worth it, I’m not supporting this, I refuse to prop up an instrument of others’ greed? (That’s what I did with the NFL.) Or do you decide to take the good with the bad and enjoy it?

I wish MLB wasn’t run the way it is. But it is. And I’m not going to crap all over the Brewers because they didn’t invest in a team that nobody expected to compete.

By the way, regarding your sanctimony over the hurricane/flooding, take some Xanax. My family suffered a personal tragedy in 2011. Right before the Brewers got hot. Did the playoff run make up for the loss of a loved one? Quite obviously, it did not.

But it did give me a pretty welcome distraction. Something to find joy in. Something to help me forget about the pain for a little while. That’s what sports are for most people because most people don’t find the need to politicize every last thing in existence.

Steve

I’m sorry, I’m having a bad day. I wish I would have worded this differently.

Nicholas Zettel

Three quick thoughts:

(1) Everything is political. If you wish not to politicize something, that’s fine, but that In itself is a type of moral statement / endorsement of a certain state of affairs.

(2) The owners are not rational
& amoral. There is nothing rationally acceptable about an entertainment group that ostensibly is geared toward producing baseball teams openly fielding anti-competitive teams. Insofar as there is a moral statement to be made on the owners, they are a decidedly immoral group.

(3) Regarding the Brewers, I simply wish to emphasize that the team should field the best possible club each year, for each year a suitable number of RS / RA fluctuate across the league and are readily available for teams to capture and contend. There is nothing joyful or laudable in refusing to build the best team possible in any given season.

KF

You’ll receive no argument from me about the comments on the FOX broadcast last night.

However, I think the assumptions you’re making about Astros and Brewers ownership aren’t quite right. I don’t have much sympathy for billionaire owners who just purchased one of the biggest luxuries money can buy, but the Astros were not a profitable franchise when Jim Crane purchased them in 2011, to say nothing of the bleak outlook on their future at that time with a barren farm system and gobs of money committed to dead weight like Carlos Lee, Brandon Lyon, Brett Myers, etc.

The owners have a right to make a profit and receive a return on their investment, and are under no real obligation to commit to a winning future by developing and accumulating controllable talent. Perhaps the huge profits you refer to are not lining the owners pockets as you assume, but are ballasting the franchise back toward the black after years in the red. Maybe I could be so bold to say that those profits are being saved to stretch payroll once the team returns to contention (look at how much the Astros’ payroll has increased in the past several seasons) and not just purchasing minor league affiliates (which I actually find to be a great use of a budget surplus). I don’t find this to be inherently immoral, and I think they are reasonably protecting their business interests much like you or I would on a much smaller scale.

I would not roundly dismiss a statement justifying tanking, especially in the case of the Astros. This was a franchise in dire straits competitively to be sure, and financially as well, ostensibly. You can make different arguments with the Cubs and their ownership group (whom I will never support given their political leanings) and the Brewers as well.

Attanasio attempted to field competitive teams arguably every season between purchasing the franchise and 2016. He largely succeeded: when the team faltered in years like 2006, 2010, and 2013, he doubled down and entered “go for it” mode the following years. It wasn’t until 2015 when he waived the white flag, and 2016 stands as the only season one could argue they tried to tank. I truly think they built the best team possible in 2016. Any serious money committed to free agents would have been ill-advised not just financially, but to player development: I would have hated to see a veteran shortstop take away playing time from Villar and Arcia in 2016.

KF

Posting under its own heading because it deserves it:

The real scam here is that we as fans believe that ownership groups are geared toward producing contending baseball teams. This is quite false. They are geared towards being profitable, just like any private business. They are selling entertainment. Winning baseball might be the most entertaining and most profitable product they can sell, but as we know they can still be plenty profitable if they tank. There are many ways to skin a cat, and there are just as many ways to turn a profit with a ballclub.

I learned this well working in the private sector. I joined a company run by investors who sought to profit off music, a field I had studied at university and was passionate about. This is not a passion the upper management even had: they were at the mercy of a board who wanted to advance their investments. This was a prime reason why I decided to leave, attend grad school and seek a college faculty position. I accepted this reality, and now advancement of the arts, and knowledge as a whole, is the goal my superiors have.

Sports teams are private entities. Despite their names, they have no obligation to a geographical area and its people to win or compete. It just so happens that winning is the best way to profit, however. Plus, teams that never truly rebuild and are always competitive regardless of market size (Cardinals, Yankees, etc.) do not treat their profits any differently than profitable rebuilding teams like the Astros and Brewers who flounder on the field.

Nicholas Zettel

Thank you for both of your thoughtful posts. I particularly agree with you on the bulk of this.

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