There’s something mildly egregious about the $30 million plateau in relation to annual player salaries. It’s a big, bad number that makes you gulp, like Barry Bonds’ 73 or Alex Rodriguez’ 687. Yet $30 million is the new norm for elite ballplayers, which is very disconcerting even for the most liberal of fans.
This winter, we’ve already seen Zack Greinke given the highest yearly wage in baseball history at $34.4 million. Meanwhile, David Price comes in third at $31 million, joining Miguel Cabrera, Clayton Kershaw and Max Scherzer in smashing through what was once an unthinkable barrier. When the typical household income throughout America is a shade over $50,000, that’s a lot of money. Greinke will earn over $1 million per start in 2016, shedding fresh light on the fantasy economics at play across Major League Baseball.
Now don’t misinterpret my approach. I’m not some crusty idealist who begrudges people their opportunity to create a better life. On the contrary, I’ve an undying love for baseball and regularly highlight the phenomenal grind these guys endure each year for our entertainment. However, if salaries are spiralling to a level with which even I’m uncomfortable, the damage to casual fans may be irreparable.
We’re now discussing truly stratospheric numbers, which makes it difficult to relate to these players. I’ve always been comfortable with guys earning in the $15-$20 million range, because that appears to be fair and manageable, a legitimate reward for their talent but not so excessive as to inspire greed. Yet now, decidedly average players are commanding those figures and superstars are contemplating double that. With all bias and politics removed, in what objective world is that justifiable?
I would never seek to impede a players’ right to earn as much as possible. They deserve that opportunity, just like everybody in the world, regardless of the industry in which they work. If the money is there, very few people would decline it. However, my problem is with the thorough insouciance of team owners and league executives who are reckless at best when trying to divide a revenue pool of $9 billion. Their outlook is incredibly myopic, and has led baseball to an unpalatable fiscal environment distinctly removed from reality.
Some experts argue that baseball players are actually underpaid, in relation to the percentage of revenue the game generates. Salaries have exploded in the past twenty-five years, but team income has outperformed even that exponential growth. Nevertheless, it’s difficult to argue that men who earn millions for playing a game should be granted an even larger slice of the pie. That’s just pedantic and unconscious. In real terms, baseball players earn more than the average person could ever dream of. Therefore, what we should focus on is how that can be regulated without strangling their rights, and what can be done to bring baseball back into the realm of financial believability.
Obviously, our passion and interest fuels the economy, with television money and merchandise sales flooding the market. And, of course, it’s better for that income to trickle down to players rather than line the pockets of faceless businessman. But I feel there has to be a way to distribute this money more fairly and responsibly, to close the vast dichotomy between haves and have nots that presently persists.
Players could surely be paid handsomely, but not ludicrously, and more of the income could be used to address chronic imbalances in the landscape. For instance, can we do more for the minor leaguer who earns less than the national poverty level and who struggles to put food on the table every night? Can we do more for the rookie who receives the Major League minimum and who shares a clubhouse with guys earning sixty times his salary?
Can we do more for little league kids and youth ball coaches, smoothing the path to big league glory? What about international play, new stadiums and television blackouts? Can we use these resources more intelligently to create a game of greater equality, enjoyment and opportunity?
Of course, the revenue cycle of elite sports is a self-perpetuating monster. Once salaries have gone so far, it’s extremely difficult to reverse the trend without labour squabbles and work stoppages. Some people argue for an NFL-style salary cap in baseball, but that method often stifles the quality of play by flattening the field entirely. Alternatively, the other end of the spectrum is also pretty murky, with baseball suffering a dark history of owner collusion. We never want to revisit those times.
Ultimately, then, I’m not entirely sure what the solution is. Amid an offseason that has sounded many alarm bells, I just needed to register my concern, to highlight the problem. We should never victimise individual players for maximising their earnings, but we should lament a deeply unimaginative system that has inspired salaries to shoot beyond a fair threshold.
If left unchecked, this dilemma will see ballplayers earning $40-50 million per year before long. And regardless of your outlook, that would be difficult to rationalise and almost impossible to comprehend in a world where poverty is still a legitimate concern.