Does winning matter anymore?

February 8, 2018

WASHINGTON — “You play to win the game.”

Herm Edwards’ indelible words were funny because of his delivery, but also because of their seeming self-evidence: Why else play sports at the professional level? Why invest all that money — in players, coaches, technology and facilities — if not to win?

Intrinsic to the very idea of fandom, to your devotion of financial and emotional capital to an organization, is that your team will do everything it can to compete at its highest possible level. A good-faith bargain is supposed to be in place — the fans will trust in and support the team, knowing that the team is doing everything it can to justify that support in the pursuit of winning games and, hopefully, ultimately, a championship.

But are professional sports franchises still holding up their end of the bargain? And what happens once that promise is broken?

This has been the slowest offseason for free agent signings in Major League Baseball history. A number of factors have come together to create this situation, but most important to fans is the fact that many teams simply don’t intend to compete this year, with a reported one-third of teams intending to punt on any major free agent signings.

Earlier this week, agent Scott Boras said that Major League Baseball teams need more incentive to win. Like most things Scott Boras says, it was clearly spoken in the self-interest of signing his clients, but it was also largely true. MLB Players Association Chief Tony Clark was more blunt Tuesday, saying that “a significant number of teams are engaged in a race to the bottom,” an action he called “a fundamental breach of the trust between a team and its fans.”

Clark, too, has the interest of his constituents in mind first and foremost. But the trust he invokes — and calls into question — is real. And it’s being eroded by the changing economics of professional sports.

Major League Baseball teams are receiving a lower percentage of their profit from traditional revenue streams than ever before. Even as far back as 2009, according to one of the few leaks of financial documents from a Major League team, the Texas Rangers’ combined revenue from ticket sales, concessions, suites and parking ($67.3 million) was already less than the combined revenue from television/radio deals alone ($68.8 million), despite averaging 27,641 in paid attendance — a middle-of-the-pack 17th out of 30 teams.

As the television rights bubble has expanded — the team signed a long-term television deal worth about $80 million a year in 2010 — and revenues from digital properties have increased, that gap has only continued to widen. It was reported in December that each team will net $50 million from the partial sale of BAMTech to Disney last year.

All of this is happening in a moment where “tanking” is more en vogue than ever before. Both the Chicago Cubs and Houston Astros tore down their on-field product to the studs in order to rebuild into championship contenders (and winners). Chicago bottomed out at 101 losses in 2012, going 271-377 (.418) over a four-year span from 2011 to 2014. Houston was even worse over that stretch, playing putrid .358 ball (232-416) in the midst of their own four-year morass, losing 111 games in 2013.

Now they’re both World Champions, giving not just credence but seemingly license to other franchises to intentionally plunge to the bottom of the standings for several years. While some teams are legitimately aiming to build through a young core of up-and-coming players, MLB is weathering the PR disaster of the sale of the Miami Marlins to a group too cash-poor to viably run them, forcing the selloff of all its top talent — including the reigning MVP, in his prime — for marginal return, just to shed salary.

To be clear — the 2018 Marlins were not, from a competitive standpoint, a team that needed to be torn down, like the 2011 Cubs and Astros. They won 77 games. Their five biggest power hitters were all still in their 20s, smack in the middle of their primes. The team was disassembled strictly for financial reasons.

Despite the payroll slashing to make the Marlins more profitable, on Tuesday Fox Business reported that Morgan Stanley balked at the opportunity to buy a piece of the team. Perhaps the most telling line of the piece was this:

People close to Jeter and Sherman said their plan has always been to seek other investors after they took control of the Marlins to reduce investors’ equity stake as the team regains its financial footing.

That is not a team that, as Major League Baseball claimed in its retort to Clark, is “committed to putting a winning product on the field for their fans.” It certainly does not support the follow-up, that “Owners own teams for one reason: They want to win.”

But the equity in such teardown moves can be sold to fan bases and even embraced by them, not just in baseball, as the Trust the Process movement embodied by the Philadelphia 76ers has shown. We’ve seen fans cheer for a bad finish within a single season before (remember “Suck for Luck?”), but The Process has been a multi-year experiment in being intentionally awful and hoarding draft capital for some ambiguous promise of future success, without any real results to speak of.

The Sixers cleared 20 wins for the first time in four years last season, having won fewer than 23 percent of their games over that span (75-253). And what do they have to show for it? A record one game over .500, thanks to Tuesday night’s win over the Wizards.

Of course, the NBA signed its own record TV deal that kicked in last season worth more than $2.6 billion per year to the league through 2024-25, a 180 percent increase from the $930 million per year deal that preceded it. The shift in how teams make their money — and their lessened reliance on happy, passionate fans in the arena — extends across professional sports. Now, the push is on to legalize gambling, especially in the NBA, with the league looking for a cut of the action. That may seem disconnected, but consider the continued divestment from the actual fan.

If you’re more of a gambler than a fan, your primary interest in the game simply becomes about whether or not you’ve bet correctly, not whether you’ve bet (financially or emotionally) on your own team. “Winning” doesn’t necessarily mean seeing your team finish with more points — just the right number of points, according to the spread. At a certain tipping point, personally predicting the outcome becomes more important than your team or city’s victory.

We’ve been building to this point across the pro sports spectrum for a while. With its constant leveraging of one municipality against another for the biggest free handout for a new stadium, the NFL long ago dumped any real pretense of prioritizing the fans in the stadium. That was driven home by the league’s decision to shoehorn the Chargers into the StubHub Center, with a capacity under 30,000, while they wait for a new Los Angeles stadium.

Moving the Raiders to Las Vegas was a pure money grab. The NFL is letting the team leave behind one of the league’s most passionate fan bases thanks to $750 million in taxpayer money – a bit more than half of which will be given to the rest of the owners. To reiterate:  Every NFL team will get just over $12 million from the Raiders’ move, paid for by the Las Vegas taxpayers.

That Raider fandom wasn’t created solely because a bunch of people decided it was a great idea to dress up in silly costumes and get blitzed and make a lot of noise. It was created by winning — by an AFL Championship and a trio of Super Bowls, by the Commitment to Excellence that was sold as the team’s identity. The team that moves to Vegas might be good. But the idea that putting a winning team on the field, for the fans, is the priority? That sailed a long time ago.

And that’s a real problem. As more people cut the cord and move on from the pricey cable packages that help fuel all the TV money, the bubble — like all bubbles built on the assumption that the price will always go up — will eventually burst. NFL ratings were down 9.7 percent this year. The Super Bowl drew its worst rating since 2009, down 7 percent. When those TV deals expire and the ratings no longer justify the money teams and leagues expect for them, how will that shortfall be bridged?

A reckoning has been coming for a long time, but suddenly you don’t need to squint to see it looming on the horizon. The NFL and MLB will see their collective bargaining agreements expire heading into the 2021/2022 season, respectively, with a great deal of labor unrest already brewing.

With the NFLPA already warning players to prepare for a lockout and tensions escalating rapidly between MLB and its union (MLB may have exacerbated them via Tuesday’s press release, revealing in violation of the CBA the monetary range of contracts that have been offered), there is a very real possibility that both sports could be looking at a work stoppage three years from now.

If the leagues continue to prioritize sources of profit other than their fans, and worry more about how much each side is getting paid than putting a winning product on the field, who will be around to care?

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