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Business and Baseball

So Manny Ramirez doesn't think it's the end of the world if the Bosox don't win the pennant this year. As usual, Manny's a little, what, isolated? out-of-step? oblivious? to the desires of the Red Sox nation. So yesterday, Mike Greenberg explained that fans want their players to care as much as they do, especially if they're making more in a year than most will make in a lifetime. And Mike Golic explained that it just doesn't work that way, that it's a job, and that getting paid more doesn't make you care more. We've heard it all before.

Then Greenberg said something like the following, and I'm paraphrasing:

Fans forget that for people inside sports, it really is all about the money. Sports is the only industry where what the customers want has nothing to do with what the owners want. Owners and players want to make money, while the fans want to win. Take our company, Disney. Do moviegoers care if they make a movie that wins the Oscar? No, not really.

Greenberg makes a mistake than many sports commentators make, when commenting about sports-as-business, and in doing so he lands himself completely on the wrong side of the discussion.

Let's point out first that successful teams make more money. With the exception of the Los Angeles Clippers, few teams can lose and continue to make money year after year. Getting taxpayers to build you a new stadium is a one-time boost, but eventually people get tired of watching a lousy product, and there are plenty of free places to see the mountains from. There's a reason the Braves left for Milwaukee, and the Expos are now the Nationals, replacing two previous DC baseball teams.

One reason the Yankees, Red Sox, Redskins, and Celtics are worth what they're worth is decades worth of building fan loyalty through winning. Championships. (Don't quibble with me about the Red Sox. They went to the World Series at least once a decade since the Babe was a bat-boy.) The A's obviously have better attendance and make more money since figuring out how to manage a budget and value-invest in players.

Bill James points out in his brilliant 1988 essay, "Revolution," that the competing business entities here aren't really teams, they're leagues. Except for a narrow swatch of Connecticut, the Yankees and Red Sox don't really compete for fans the way they do for wins. But MLB competes with the NFL for attention (also known as brosdcast revenue), and the Rockies compete with the Avs and Broncos and Nuggets for local attention. The reason the NHL #6 and sinking fast is that its games are on something called the "Vs." network, not because they Avs win or don't win.

While the Yankees may hate the Red Sox and the Cowboys may hate the Redskins, from a business perspective they need each other, like the black-white/white-black guys on that Star Trek episode. Because otherwise it's just the Black Sox throwing around a ball on a cornfield in Iowa.

James makes the insight that Greeny misses entirely: I buy a can of tomato soup because I want tomato soup. Just because Campbell's sees it as a business doesn't mean I have to. They may have better soup, or more flavors, or they may have better packaging, or more convenient sizes, or placement deals with Safeway. For them, that's business. Me, I just want a can of soup.

Baseball is selling competition. The minor leagues withered away into mid-inning diversions because of TV, yes, but also because their competition isn't real. The players care about stats because they want to get to the next level. Just like the managers. For them, success isn't winning an International League championship, it's getting called up to the majors and watching their old mates win that title.

When major league players don't care, or are perceived as not caring, it damages the honesty of the competition every bit as much as Giambi on the Juice. If enough players don't care, then the fans won't, either. They'll look for a league or a sport where players do care. And those players and owners will make the money.

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