Sunday, April 21, 2002

The Socialism of American professional sports (continued..the feedback)

I have been extremely pleasantly surprised by the volume and quality of responses to my initial post on this subject. The most detailed (at least that I have read so far) was on Ribstone-Pippin. It makes many excellent points (including many I was planning to make in future posts myself!), so please go read it.

However, I will debate a number of the points raised. I quote:

I generally agree with Jon Wishnia's take on the situation, which is, in brief, that sports leagues rather than their constituent teams should be viewed as the appropriate entity to which the rules of a competitive marketplace should be applied. That is, the goal of each league is to beat out the other professional sports leagues (and all other competing entertainment sources) in providing the best product for consumers. Each league has, independently, decided that the best product results from a reasonable level of parity so that fans in small or poorer markets still have some reason to follow the game and fans from bigger markets do not get bored seeing the Yankees, for example, roll over every other team (o.k., bad example, but even they don't win every year). The leagues have, therefore, instituted various internal mechanisms which balance the interests of the players with those of the owners and fans, such as revenue-sharing (though not all leagues have this) and both entry and expansion drafts.

My response: I have already made some points relating to this issue in my second post on this topic (below) before reading this argument. Again, it is far from clear to me that parity actually increases fan interest. I cited anecdotal evidence to the contrary below, and could further cite the examples of the Chicago Cubs and Boston Red Sox which have no trouble selling tickets despite their failure to win a championship for shockingly long times (and during seasons in years past when the Cubs had some truly awful teams). And as my fine critic points out later in the post, college sports are extremely popular in the US despite (because of?) the inherent lack of parity. The David v. Goliath story lines in college sports (Penn basketball, for example) often are exactly what make college sports exciting.

It is my contention (not entirely clearly stated so far) that the "parity is good" argument may be nothing more than a smokescreen by the various league's team owners to reduce the bargaining power of newly entering players who would otherwise be free agents. If parity were truly the only consideration, then a drafted player should be able to sign with the team that drafted him or any team with a worse record than the drafting team. That would bring about parity much faster while causing less limitation on players freedom to choose where they live and their work conditions. (Yes, it would then stink to get drafted by the worst team--you still could only negotiate with one team--but most players would be at least somewhat better off.)

I quote:

I would add that if the players really feel that their rights are not being respected they can (1) go play somewhere else (Europe, Japan, Canada) or (2) start another league (each of the current Big Four professional leagues is the product of the combination of smaller leagues).

My response: On point 1, yes, it is true that players could play in another country, but there are obvious costs to them in doing so. Again, using the hypothetical example of a law student draft, you could argue that if the law students didn't like it they could practice in another country, or enter a different field, etc. Somehow I don't feel that argument would be taken lying down. Update: Perhaps Medical student would be a better example as one armed with a US medical degree could practice more easily internationally than a lawyer could given vastly differing legal codes. On point 2, at least in the case of baseball, there is a specific antitrust exemption in law that would make starting a competing league difficult, if not impossible. And teams in the other leagues have often received tremendous government subsidies in the form of stadiums, tax breaks and the like which would not likely be offered to a rival league--again making viable competition disadvantaged.

The rest of the Ribstone Pippin post concerning the structure of European football (soocer) and how it could be applied to the US is extremely well written. The example of a Yankees/Brooklyn Cyclones battle in the English FA Cup short series format would cause incredible excitement in sports land (much bigger even, I would argue, than the recent beginning of interleague play in baseball.) I am in nearly full agreement with all said in this section, including the unfortunate conclusion that while such a system could indeed be very interesting, there do exist perhaps insurmountable institutional barriers to its adoption. But then again, the Berlin Wall fell....

All for now, though I think its safe to say there is more to come! Thanks to all for the awesome feedback.