I covered the technical problem behind revenue sharing:
it’s so toxic to the penalized owners that it’s unlikely to work. Trying to
convince an investor that he has already made enough money is like trying
to convince Pat Buchanan that the last great anti-trade crusade gave us the
Great Depression. It’s a fool’s errand.
Revenue-sharing proponents do have one ace up their sleeves, and on the
face of it, an oddly appealing argument. They say that the Yankees owe the
money to the small-market teams, because without the Royals, the Devil Rays
and Expos, there wouldn’t be any baseball.
But where emotions are long, memories are short. Indeed, there was baseball
long before the Royals, Devil Rays and Expos–yes, I cheated and picked
three expansion teams–and It Was Good. In 1959, baseball had just 16 teams
and things were just fine. In fact, it was better for the Yankees, since
they were just reaching the end of a run that had already seen them win
eight World Series titles in an 11-season span, and that would net them two
more before imploding after 1964. If I’m George Steinbrenner–and I’m not,
because I can’t stand navy blazers–and the Marlins and Brewers try to
extort money under threat of folding, I’d advise them that the door is
heavy and they should be careful on their way out.
One doomsday scenario to consider, should MLB persist in its shakedown of
the most successful teams, is a schism, kind of like the reduction scenario
in reverse. The high-revenue clubs could try to split from the remainder
and form their own league. Many clubs would follow to avoid losing the
revenue that they gain from their association with the most famous and
successful teams, which results in direct and indirect revenue gains that
would be lost without the Yankees, Dodgers and Braves in the fold. It’s not
likely, but it’s a weapon the biggest teams will probably wield in words.
Another common refrain is that the other sports have enacted revenue
sharing and/or salary caps and seen wonderful results. The NFL is the most
commonly cited example, but the NBA and NHL also come up as points of
evidence. This is all preposterous.
The NBA is the worst argument for salary caps and similar arrangements one
could imagine. The league has yet to find a workable system. The proof is
in the pudding here. The past 20 NBA championships have been won by a total
of seven teams (Boston, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Detroit, Chicago,
Houston and San Antonio). Five of those teams accounted for 18 of the
titles; L.A. and Chicago alone accounted for 11, 12 if you go back one more
season to 1980.
Los Angeles, the Yankees of the NBA, just won the championship on the giant
back of the league’s handsomely compensated MVP, Shaquille O’Neal, bought
and allegedly tampered away from Orlando. Now, Orlando has come back with a
vengeance, clearing room under the NBA’s joke of a salary cap and setting
out to buy a championship by attempting to acquire the league’s top two
free agents this offseason. Imagine the outcry if Alex Rodriguez and
Manny Ramirez were to both go to the Mets this fall.
The NHL isn’t much better, with salaries exploding since the advent of free
agency, players routinely holding out for more money (Alexei Yashin, Pavel
Bure) and the worst record of any of the four major sports for championship
parity. Since 1971–the first post-expansion year where the Stanley Cup
finals weren’t a sweep–only 12 teams have won the Cup, and three teams
(Montreal, Edmonton and the New York Islanders) accounted for 17 of the
championships. The four finalists in the playoffs this year had all won at
least one Cup championship before; only Philadelphia, a contender all
decade, hadn’t won one in the 1990s.
The NFL has the best case, particularly coming off the All-Parity Super
Bowl this year, but even so, the case for its revenue-sharing program is
mixed at best. In the ten years before the Rams beat the Titans, one of the
Yankees of the NFL, the Dallas Cowboys, took three titles, while another
one of the Yankees of the NFL, the 49ers, took another. Denver nabbed two
titles to cap a 15-year run of near-constant contention. The 1992 Super
Bowl winner, Washington, has spent its way to contender and perhaps
favorite status for next year’s title.
The NFL’s case rests on its also-rans, as perennial doormats Indianapolis
and Tampa Bay have used the draft and shrewd management to become
contenders, while the hapless Atlanta Falcons managed a Super Bowl
appearance in 1999. So it appears that revenue sharing has brought
contention to the also-rans of the league, but it isn’t clear whether it
will really pay off in Super Bowl appearances and championships.
We don’t have much data to go on, so I don’t mean to make a mountain out of
this molehill of examples. But I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say
that revenue sharing and salary caps have not produced the boost to the
least successful teams that some commentators seem to expect.
Keith Law can be reached at email@example.com.