Aug 24,2001

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BASEBALL

Mr. Selig Goes to Washington

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Owners of high-revenue teams, for obvious reasons, had no interest in giving money to their less fortunate competitors. In the summer of 1993, after a failed summit meeting that included various ultimatums and a last-ditch proposal from the have owners to the have-nots, delivered by, of all people, Texas Rangers owner George W. Bush ("I have nothin' to say about nothin'," he told reporters as the meeting broke up in disarray), owners finally arrived at a strategy they could all agree on: screw the players.

Revenue sharing, it was decided, would go into effect only if players agreed to a salary cap. In effect, the high-revenue teams told the low-revenue ones they could have their money, but only if it came out of the players' hides.

We all know what happened next -- the players went on strike, the World Series was canceled, the owners got their heads handed to them by the union as usual, and baseball's economic structure went on, business-as-usual.

When baseball returned in 1995, small-market owners had a new strategy for upping their revenues. Stadium demands began flying fast and furious, as millionaire owners, and even the odd billionaire like the Twins' Carl Pohlad or the Marlins' Wayne Huizenga, decided to go after fans and taxpayers, since neither the big-market teams nor the players were willing to subsidize their bottom line. And out in front of the cameras every time, assuring the public that the only way teams could remain "competitive" was with a new stadium, was Bud Selig.

Ghosts of labor conflicts future

The current blue-ribbon commission -- packed with such pro-ownership luminaries as Will, Mitchell, and ex-Federal Reserve chairman Paul Volcker (who also served on 1992's blue-ribbon panel) -- once again declared the game to be in crisis, waving around figures claiming to show that only three teams made a profit in 1999.

(Cries of sports teams losing money are never to be believed, of course. Remember that it was current MLB honcho Paul Beeston, then the president of the Toronto Blue Jays, who once memorably claimed that "Under generally accepted accounting principles, I can turn a $4 million profit into a $2 million loss." And economist Andrew Zimbalist once calculated that the Marlins' claims of a $29 million loss, after you accounted for all the hidden revenues and shady bookkeeping, actually hid an operating profit of nearly $14 million.)

The blue-ribbon commission's proposals to solve this latest crisis were a new twist on the owners' last failed plan. It leaves out the salary cap, but includes a high "luxury tax" on rich teams, plus a "payroll floor" to ensure that the recipients of revenue sharing don't simply pocket the proceeds while continuing to run Triple-A players out on the field.

The economic effects of such a plan are a bit hard to predict. Many baseball union leaders (and economists like Zimbalist) insist that it would suppress wages because high-revenue teams like the Yankees would no longer have huge surpluses with which to drive up free-agent salaries, though replenished pocketbooks for low-revenue clubs like the Twins and Expos should help mitigate that somewhat. But with memories fresh of the last time the owners tried to finance revenue sharing out of player salaries, perhaps the players are right to be skeptical.

As ex-union chief Marvin Miller told a reporter following the hearing, which he had likewise declined to attend: "I wouldn't pay attention to anything Bud Selig says now more than I would pay attention to anything Mike Tyson would say two months before a fight."

Book those 2002 WNBA tickets now. It could be a long, hot summer.



Respond: sjeditor@sportsjones.com

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