Is YRod Good for the Game?

When the Alex Rodriguez trade was announced, there was a great collective gnashing of teeth from fans of the 29 non-Yankee teams.  Of course, Yankee fans tried to tell everyone that this was the best thing for baseball.  In essence, that it's in baseball's best interest to have a dominant team in New York.  It's not just casual Yankee fans that have been saying this either; college-educated writers, columnist and commentators have been echoing this sentiment as well. 

Admittedly, baseball has been the crucible for many of the most moronic ideas of the last 20 years - that contraction is necessary, that Washington DC doesn't deserve a major league baseball team, that an unbalanced schedule has no effect on the wild card race, that players who don't play on winning teams can't be MVPs... I've even had people try to tell me that steroid use has no effect on baseball performance.  It's enough to question the value of a college education.  But this contention - that New York deserves a super team because it's in the best interest of baseball - is by far the most ridiculous and mind-numbingly ignorant I've heard.  One has to go back to the Scopes trial to hear an argument with less validity. 

For all those who fail to understand why:

Here's why Alex Rodriguez becoming a Yankee is not necessarily good for baseball:

1) Yankee fans will often note that other teams' attendance goes up when the Yankees are in town, therefore that's good for baseball.  Let's assume that every team gets a boost of between 5000 and 10,000 fans per game when the Yankees are in town.  First of all, this would only be true for the 14 American League teams and for the two or three teams in the National League that get home games against the Yankees due to interleague play.  That means a boost of at most 30,000 fans per season for non AL-East teams and a boost of 90,000 fans for AL East teams.  Nice, but only half the League benefits.

However, countless studies have shown that attendance increases when the home team has a winning team.  When the Braves went from cellar-dwellers to NL East champs, their attendance increased by more than a million fans.  The Twins turned the trick that same year and their attendance increased by over 500,000 fans.  Last year, after several terrible seasons the Royals' run for the division title increased attendance by 456,000 fans.  The lovable loser Cubs finally produced a division winner and even with as loyal as their fan base is, they boosted their total by 339,000.  It goes without saying that a winning team attracts more fans than a losing team but the difference is overwhelmingly greater than any boost that a team might get when a particular team, namely the Yankees, is visiting.  So if the home team can keep it's best players and thus produce a winning team instead of losing them in a bidding war to the Yankees, then that is clearly the more beneficial option, at least as far as the league is concerned.

It should also be noted that the bump in attendance when New York is in town isn't because the Yankees are good; it's because there are a lot of people out there who grew up either loving or loathing the Yankees.  The proof is that the attendance boost has always occurred.  It has nothing to do with the quality of the current Yankee team.  So the bump in attendance for Yankee appearances will be there regardless of how good the Yankees are.  Putting lots of good teams on the field is much better for baseball than having one or two.  Parity generates fan interest.  It means your team always has a reasonable chance of winning a championship at the beginning of the season and that they are never too far out of it to make a late season charge during the season.  If you need more proof, just look at the success of the NFL, how many fans it draws per game and its TV ratings.
2) Speaking of TV ratings, Economist Andrew Zimbalist wrote that in order for baseball to maximize it's revenue, it's best that at least one team from a large market be in the World Series.  Naturally, Yankee fans and several New York sports columnists obstreperously conclude that what he was really saying is that the best scenario for baseball is to have the Yankees vs the National League team for the championship.  If that reasoning wasn't so utterly pathetic, it'd be funny.  And frankly, I'm not so sure that Zimbalist isn't off quite a bit, too.

Here are the lowest rated World Series in history, by rank from worst up:

Anaheim vs San Francisco - 2002
New York Yankees vs New York Mets - 2000
Florida vs New York Yankees - 2003
New York Yankees vs San Diego - 1998
Arizona vs New York Yankees - 2001
New York Yankees vs Atlanta - 1999

Notice anything unusual here?  Besides the fact that the worst rated World Series have all taken place in the last 6 years (are you paying attention, Bud Selig?), five of the six worst World Series in terms of television viewership involved the New York Yankees and it didn't even matter who won.  These weren't simply the worst... they were the worst by a mile: the New York/Atlanta Series in 1999 (the best of the worst) drew a 16.0 share, which is less than half of what the top Series' drew.  There have been 10 World Series that have drawn less than an 18 share and the New York Yankees have been involved in 6 of them.  Even more damning is that each of the worst rated Series in which the Yankees have been a participant involved their current incarnation, the one that grossly outspends every other team in baseball.  Could it be that people don't see the drama in a World Series where one team outspends the other by 300%?  They were certainly interested in a Cubs/Red Sox World Series: last year's NLCS and ALCS were the highest rated League Championship Series in the last 10 years.  They were so highly rated that two opposing networks postponed their flagship fall openers until after the series were over.

So what about the highest rated World Series?  Who did they involve?  From the top down:
Philadelphia vs Kansas City - 1980
New York Yankees vs Los Angeles - 1978
Oakland vs New York Mets - 1973
New York Yankees vs Los Angeles - 1981
New York Yankees vs Los Angeles - 1977
Cincinnati vs Boston - 1975
New York Mets vs Boston - 1986
Pittsburgh vs Baltimore - 1979
St. Louis vs Milwaukee - 1982
Oakland vs Cincinnati - 1972

Each of these drew at least a 27 share.  As you can see, New York fills this list too, but it's not necessarily the Yankees.  The Mets participated in almost as many highly rated Series as the Yankees here.  What's also interesting is that 5 of these Series didn't involve a New York team and three of them didn't involve a "large market" team at all.  It appears that the deciding factor in whether or not a World Series is highly rated is not the market that the teams come from, but the personalities on the teams.  Eight of the top rated World Series involved a team with notable personalities: Reggie Jackson, Billy Martin and the Bronx Zoo; Cincinnati's Big Red Machine with quipmeister Sparky Anderson and "Charlie Hustle" Pete Rose; Charlie Finley's mustachioed free spirits from Oakland, the "We are Family" Pirates; the Philadelphia "Wheeze Kids"... that, not market size, determines whether or not a World Series will be highly rated.  As with any good TV, we are interested in interesting people, not where they come from or the color of their clothing.

3) The Yankee payroll now stands at a hefty $185 million and given the noises they are making about trading for a left handed pitcher and/or a star second baseman, it is sure to top $200 million by the end of the season.  Unlike other owners who would have to spend out of their own pocket to accomplish this, George Steinbrenner and the Yankees make this from their association with the YES Network, their local cable TV contract.  The Yankees pretty much have exclusive access to this market, only sharing it with the inept Mets.  New York is 50% larger than Los Angeles and twice the size of Chicago, the nation's second and third largest markets and both of those markets are split between two teams.   The Yanks are merely spending what the largest market in sports will yield.  It has very little to do with George Steinbrenner's business savvy or wealth.  It has nothing to do with New Yorkers' desire to win.  It has everything to do with the amount of money available to the Yankees, a resource that is available to only one other franchise (the Mets).  No matter how smart or how savvy or how wealthy almost any other owner is baseball is, they can never, ever come close to duplicating the advantage the Yankees currently have over the rest of baseball. 

This is an important point because contrary to Yankee fans' perceptions, baseball is not a free market.  Rob Neyer eloquently stated this in an ESPN chat recently.  In a free market, the idea is to get wealthy by putting your opponents out of business.  But if the Yankees put everyone else out of business, they will have no one to play.  In sport, the idea is to compete on the field, not at the bank.  The Yankees are winning because of their advantage at the bank, not their ability to evaluate talent on the field.

And let's put to rest this nonsense about the Yankees being a product of their farm system because it simply isn't true.  Yes, they have groomed several very good players from their farm.  But last year they paid nearly $60 million for Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, Andy Pettitte, Jorge Posada and Bernie Williams.   That's more money to 5 players than 13 other teams paid their entire payroll.  The Yankees spent more on their long and short relievers in their bullpen (excluding Rivera) - $21 million - than 15 other teams did on their complete pitching staffs.   They outbid everyone for the top foreign free agents (Contreras and Matsui for $11.5 million) but they have also outbid everyone for several others who turned out to be busts, so it can't be said that they have a particularly discerning eye when it comes to acquiring foreign talent.  They also outbid everyone for two top free agents (Mussina, Giambi) at a cost of $25 million, and took on several oversized contracts in salary dump trades in order to deepen their roster (Hitchcock, Mondesi, Weaver, Boone) for another $25 million.  The vast majority of their roster last year was there because they had money to burn, not because they were more adept at evaluating talent than anyone else.  This year is more of the same.

Some will point out that having the highest payroll is no guarantee of winning the World Series.  This is true.  But in 6 of the last 11 years, the #1 overall payroll team made it to the World Series and in 1994 the top payroll (the Yankees) had the best record in the AL and was a strong favorite for a World Series berth.  A closer examination reveals that the #2 payroll in 1998 made the World Series and the difference between #1 and #2 that year was a mere $7 million; last year, the difference between #1 and #2 was $35 million.  This year, that difference will be closer to than $60 million. 

Conversely, before last year's surprising Marlins won (6th lowest payroll), the last team in the bottom 10 in payroll to even make the World Series was the 1993 Philadelphia Phillies (9th lowest) and the last one to win was the 1990 Reds (7th lowest).  A team in the top 10 in payroll has particiapted in every World Series since 1991, and in six of the twelve World Series since then, both teams were in the top 10.  One has to go back more than 20 years to find a World Series where both participants ranked in the bottom 10 in payroll, when the difference between #1 and the rest of the field was not nearly as disparate as it is today.  To give you an idea of just how much team salaries have changed, the top overall payroll in 1991 (the Oakland As) was only $33 million and the top overall payroll didn't top $50 million until 1996 (not coincidentally, it was the Yankees who were the first to do it).  The disparity in payrolls is growing and, as the World Series ratings are showing, so is the fan disinterest. 

The notion that having a super team in New York is the best thing for baseball is baseless, mindless rubbish.  The NBA certainly didn't hurt from having it's best teams in Chicago, LA or Boston and the NFL never hurt from having it's best teams in Pittsburgh, Dallas, San Francisco or Green Bay.  While having great teams is always an attraction for fans and non-fans alike, New York (as a location for one) is superfluous to that discussion.  It does not matter one iota whether there's a great team in New York or not.  Period.  While the current situation is great for New Yorkers and bandwagon fans of the Yankees, there is more evidence that it is bad for baseball than it is good.