Thursday, March 12, 2009

Baseball and the Economy: The Manny Deal

A recent ESPN poll asked fans how their feelings have changed concerning the colossal salaries professional athletes in light of the current economic crisis. Results were quite telling, with nearly equal proportions of fans finding themselves ranging from “not affected at all” to “mildly outraged” by the multi-million dollar figures; however, surprisingly very few indicated that they find such salaries “reprehensible.” In a related poll, a larger, clearer majority stated that today’s financial climate would not affect their attendance of professional sporting events. What do these polls tell us? First, by and large, sports fans understand and accept the flexible revenue available in the entertainment industry. Next, they realize the obvious competitive nature of professional sports and the need to pay great players their market value in order to compose a championship-caliber team. Last of all, especially in these trying times, people need a break from the daily grind and will still allocate money from tightening budgets to see a winning team play. While box office sales are diminishing and restaurants continue to struggle, even the most scandalized fans (by player salaries of PEDs) are still coming to ballgames for diversion and cathartic release.

This brings me to a story I have followed with much interest since November: the Manny Ramirez negotiations with my Los Angeles Dodgers. Admitting a clear sports bias, I have to say that I was one of the many Angelenos to warmly welcome Manny to Chavez Ravine on July 31st of last year. (I first heard the news on television at the Encino-Tarzana maternity ward where my wife was in labor with our daughter; had the anesthetic been stronger, Emma might now answer to “Manuela.”) In less than two months, Manny put up triple crown worthy numbers and the Dodgers went from a decent, competing (.500) team without a power bat to NL West champs and one of the hottest teams in baseball—sweeping the league-best Cubs in the NLDS. Come November, I—and most of the Dodger Nation—expected owner Frank McCourt and GM Ned Colletti to hand Manny a blank check. That this did not happen as harmoniously as hoped is acceptable; the upper management’s recent rhetoric is not.

As a series of deals floundered on the basis of years, flexibility and, of course, money (deferred or otherwise), tensions mounted and the hopes of keeping Manny in Blue began to dwindle. Both sides (Manny and agent Scott Boras on one, McCourt/Colletti on the other) held that a deal was still possible but the main issues remained: money and years. However, when the Dodgers made their “best offer” two weeks ago as Spring Training drew near and Manny rejected the deal, Frank McCourt (for whom I have great respect) said a few things that really irked me: Claiming that negotiations had “terminated,” he had the audacity to cite the crumbling economy in these stalemated negotiations. I quote: “We kept our offer virtually where it was in November. And you know what? The world isn't anything like it was in November” (whole story here). In a battle of millionaires, this was a highly-insensitive and misleading statement on his part.

Why is this statement so scandalous? And, furthermore, why are the Dodgers are such a good example of sports and the economy? First off, if we consider MLB attendance records over the course of the McCourt era (since 2004), we see that the Dodgers are consistently behind only the Yankees in ticket sales. Also, in the same five-year span, McCourt has increased ticket and concession prices each year to make the Dodgers one of the top-five most marketable franchises in professional baseball (read the Forbes article here). Save the Yankees, Red Sox, Cubs and, maybe, the Mets, LA also sells the most memorabilia and team apparel of any other team. (Remember, all Brooklyn Dodgers revenues go to LA as well.) And, with Manny on the field, the stands will remain full. But, who comes to Dodgers games? Last year, I attended the game where the Dodgers became the first franchise in the history of spectator sports to eclipse 100 million fans. Of course, you have deep-pocketed regulars like Tom Hanks, Jon Lovitz, Adam Sandler and other entertainment industry types. Still, a large proportion of the Dodgers faithful are struggling, blue collar bleacher bums—the tortilla-packing and tuna-sandwich grubbing bunch—who faithfully come up from Torrance, down from North Hollywood and in from East LA to support the Blue beneath the iconic corrugated “wavy” pavilion. Do we really fear that men with the interlaced LA tattooed on their shaved heads, carrying infants with authentic embroidered Ramirez 99 jerseys are going to stop coming to games? The Dodgers are part of LA culture and as LA Times sports columnist Bill Plaschke has repeatedly indicated, Dodgers fans at the end of last season lived a period of frenzy equaled only by Fernando-Mania in the 80s. Game 3 of the NLCS broke Dodger Stadium’s record attendance mark at 56,800. Despite socio-economic diversity and financial straits, fans still battle traffic on the 101 and will especially come with Manny sporting blue in left. (Want proof?)

To briefly address other “fears” of “Manny being Manny” in LA as he was in Boston, let it be known that the Red Sox won two titles with Manny being Manny—something they will not do without Manny. Major League big-mouth Curt Schilling (baseball’s equivalent to Rush Limbaugh) has had words to say and Jonathan Papelbon just today called Manny a “cancer” in the clubhouse. Sour grapes? Manny doesn't mind (link). Rafael Furcal, Casey Blake and all his current teammates love him, constantly emphasizing his work ethic and positive clubhouse presence. Were Red Sox fans not coming to games when Manny was there?

Looking back to the last big economic crisis (no, not the 80s of Fernando-Mania), in the 1930s, even the most destitute and anti-Semitic Detroit Tigers fans were still going to the ballpark to see RBI King (and practicing Jew) Hank Greenberg lead their team to the pennant. Even if the market takes a turn for the worst, Dodgers fan will still need the diversion and release that today’s colorful RBI King can offer them.

For a final point on baseball and the marketplace, I am one of those who think it a shame that small market teams have very little fighting chance in the fat wallet race. Manny will make more this season than did the entire Florida Marlins payroll in 2008. The socialist in me wants to appeal to equality; but, with the market as it is today, I am glad to have Manny Ramirez on my team and an owner who, ultimately, realizes what Manny means to the morale of the city and the team.

1 comment:

Corry Cropper said...

I certainly do not fault Manny for going for what he can get, nor LA management for trying to get a good deal. Using the failing economy as an excuse to low-ball Manny was certainly disingenuous, but we've seen other employers threaten to freeze salaries, take away bonuses, etc. in the name of the economic downturn while they continue to make good money (Ikea is one example; a certain university I will not name is another). Any chance management can find to play hard ball (no pun intended) they'll take it. Viva la capitalism!