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May 27, 2011

Baseball ProGUESTus

Curing the Frank McCourt Blues

by Eric Nusbaum

Believe it or not, most of our writers didn't enter the world sporting an @baseballprospectus.com address; with a few exceptions, they started out somewhere else. In an effort to up your reading pleasure while tipping our caps to some of the most illuminating work being done elsewhere on the internet, we'll be yielding the stage once a week to the best and brightest baseball writers, researchers and thinkers from outside of the BP umbrella. If you'd like to nominate a guest contributor (including yourself), please drop us a line.

Eric Nusbaum is a writer born in Los Angeles and living in Seattle. He founded and co-edits Pitchers & Poets, a blog devoted to conversation about baseball and its place in our world. A story he wrote for that blog appeared in the 2010 edition of Best American Sportswriting.

Baseball, as you might have heard, is a business. Ticket prices rise. Favorite players get traded or leave as free agents. Sometimes even favorite franchises leave as free agents. It's the central lament not just of baseball, but all sports; the first hard reality a young fan is forced to deal with. And deal with it we must, in perpetuity.

We cope as best we can. Maybe we embrace the cynicism, the corruption, the fleeting nature of everything. Or maybe we compartmentalize. For many fans this is the answer: forget about the ugly contract negotiations, forget about what an asshole the owner might be, forget the $20 you just dropped on parking and simply enjoy the ballgame.

Generally, I try to be that kind of fan. Baseball is supposed to bring me joy. That's why I think so much about it. That's why I write so much about it. But lately, maybe because I'm a Dodger fan, it's been impossible to compartmentalize. The negativity surrounding the club has been too unrelenting, too exhausting. The team is terrible. And every other bit of news around the league—the travails of Fred Wilpon and the Mets, especially—seems perfectly calibrated to reflect my misery. Buster Posey is out for the season? Bummer. At least the Giants organization isn't descending into complete chaos.

I can think of one other time that the Dodgers had me this beaten up: when Fox traded Mike Piazza. My response at the time—I was ten—was to write a letter, which went unanswered. Eventually I came to learn that the Piazza trade wasn't the problem but a symptom of bad owners with no regard for the team's fans, history, or even on-field success.

I keep coming back to those symptoms. I keep coming back to Fox, to the McCourts, to Fred Wilpon. I keep coming back to Daniel Snyder, Al Davis, Donald Sterling. Bad owners are everywhere. They're a popular target. But in the end, do sports owners really owe fans anything? After all, this is a business.

The answer is no, but it's a nuanced no. Owners don't owe fans much. Baseball teams exist in a free market. They might not compete with one another for revenue, but they do compete with other entertainment choices. Fans can change the channel. They can go to the movies instead of the ballgame. If an owner reaches a certain threshold of badness, attendance will fall. Ratings will fall. The team might suffer on the field. The brand will become diminished.

We're seeing that with both the Dodgers and Mets this year. Attendance at Dodger Stadium is down almost 20 percent. Attendance at Citi Field is down almost 12 percent, but it was lower to begin with. Bad owners do suffer (I use the term loosely) for their sins. But in the cases of Frank McCourt and Fred Wilpon, is that suffering enough? Are the regular skewerings they receive in media sufficient? Haven't these men breached a sacred bond, or at the very least their end of an unspoken social contract that governs human decency?

It's a fact that some people are not capable of holding up their end of the social contract. Owners are people too, and therefore deserve to be treated as such. Which is why I propose something completely fantastical. I propose an actual contract to be signed by owners and fans, the central condition of which is simple: be decent. The terms needn't be unreasonable.

Something like this:

  1. Ensure a safe, comfortable, and not exorbitantly expensive ballpark experience. High prices are expected, but insane price spikes from year to year are not.

    a) This rule applies especially to owners who have received public stadium financing. If public money—even in the form of those foolish low-interest loans that don't get paid back—goes into the construction or remodeling of a stadium, there should be corresponding responsibilities manifested in, at the very least, ticket, concession, and parking price ceilings.
     
  2. If you can avoid it, don't move the franchise or sell the franchise to an ownership group from, say, Oklahoma City.
     
  3. Actually try to field a competitive team every once in a while. This mostly applies for small-market teams. Bad decisions are inevitable, and limited resources temper expectations, but, you know, at least try.
     
  4. Keep in mind that, in the eyes of fans, you, the owner, are not more important than the team. Municipalities feel a sense of possession when it comes to their sports franchises. Dragging the Dodgers into a divorce trial is dragging their fans, and by extension Los Angeles, into a divorce trial. Dragging the Mets into a fraud case is dragging Mets fans, and by extension New York, or at least Queens, into that muck.

In exchange for all those things, solid attendance, even when the team isn't especially promising. (Say what you will about Cubs fans, for example, but they are what I'm talking about.) Increased merchandise sales. A positive atmosphere in the stands. Fans who come out in droves for a World Series parade and possibly even come out in droves when the team returns to the airport after losing a one-game playoff for the Wild Card. Franchise and city and citizens of both those entities united as part of a single, symbiotic ecosystem. 

The point is that owners have a legitimate incentive to look in the mirror; it's not about the rules themselves, but about the way to build a positive brand—and from that brand, to develop a more vigorous product. Behave decently. Respect your customers. Give them a commodity worth caring about. These are not just sports lessons, but business lessons.

The counter-argument, of course, is that baseball is an inelastic good. Fans come to games anyway. They buy merchandise anyway. And there's a point to be made there. The Dodgers, even with their 20 percent drop, are still third in the National League in attendance. But baseball is not immune to elasticity. Where might the Reds, a team without the Dodgers' massive market and national brand, be if their ownership was that screwed up? (Mike Brown's still GM-less Cincinnati Bengals provide a clue.) And if all things remain equally nasty, where will the Dodgers be in a year or two?

This is a working idea. A dream. But I think it could help. I think it's worth remembering that while baseball is a business, it does not always have to be bad business. Big contracts and bitter negotiations and bumbling general managers will always be part of the deal. But civic embarrassment should not be part of the deal, owners so blinded by their own hubris that they are unable to address their basic duties to their fans should not be part of the deal. And they don't have to be. Really.

Related Content:  Fans,  Managers Of The Year,  Business

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