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The Spectacle Of Sports

Updated: Dec 18, 2019


Nationals' Howie Kendrick's go-ahead, two-run home run off Houston's Will Smith in inning seven of game seven of the World Series.


BY LEX PRYOR


Almost two months ago today, Washington Nationals second baseman Howie Kendrick

hit a World Series-winning home run off the right field foul-pole in Houston’s Minute Maid Park. In retrospect, it was a shockingly unlikely event, even for a sport shrouded in impossibility. At the start of the inning, the Nationals had just a 14.8% chance of winning according to Fangraphs. Once Kendrick’s at-bat began, he fell behind in the count to a pitcher who had allowed just one home run the entire season (!!!) in similar situations. Even while the ball was in the air, a gust of wind in any direction could have pushed it out of the field of play.


And yet, impossibly, it was a homer.


For Washington that win was the culmination of years of near misses. Since 2012, they had made the playoffs four times, only to lose in the first round on each occasion. For their fans, Kendrick’s swing was the type of sweet cosmic justice that only sports can provide. Life is messy - nobody’s ever really a clear cut winner - but in the afterglow of their victory, Nationals fans got to be just that. Yet for the rest of the league, the Nationals’ win only added another layer of proof to the increasing unanimity over the future of the game.


Across all sports, there is a tendency among team-builders in the weeks after season’s end to search for some overarching lesson from the newly crowned champion. Maybe it’s something from their strategy or the type of players they collected; whatever the case may be, opposing teams try to emulate the formula that actually worked. In baseball, that conversation has increasingly centered around how to define success in a game with 32 contestants and only

one winner.


The argument that league executives have pushed in the wake of the Nationals victory essentially goes like this: the postseason is a volatile (and inaccurate) measuring system to determine the best team — it’s a crapshoot and the only way to game the system is to get there as many times as possible and hope to eventually strike gold. It’s that kind of attitude that drives someone like New York Yankees GM Brian Cashman to say his team “did not have a failed season” even after failing to reach the World Series for the entirety of the last decade.


Today, the goal of each team has shifted from building a champion to building a sustainable winner. Instead of spending lavishly on players and going “all in” on one year, teams eschew big contracts in favor of long-term flexibility. In this new world, teams don’t want a juggernaut, they want consistency; they don’t want talent, they want value.


That may sound good, in a weird, “I like billionaire owners getting bang for their buck,” kind of way. The problem is, it’s not accurate. The Nationals didn’t win the world series because they eschewed large financial commitments in favor of value contracts. True, they relied on minimum salary players like Juan Soto and Victor Robles, but they also built their roster around three starting pitchers with a combined salary of $93 million for last year alone. According to Forbes, going into last season the Nationals made about $336 million in revenue over the previous year. At the start of the season, the Nationals had a player payroll of $199 million, meaning that the percentage of their revenue that they spent on payroll was about 59%. That number was the third-highest in the entire league. They aren’t what happens when you don’t spend, they’re what happens when you do.


So if the argument against big spending isn’t true, why is it so prevalent across the sport?


Because it makes money.


In the past, professional sports leagues used the very act of competition itself, among teams and their players, to entertain the public and generate as much revenue as possible. Yes, sports were a profit-making enterprise, but they relied on the drawing power of “legitimate” competition to do so. To channel Field of Dreams, it was an “If you build it, they will come,” sort of deal. Sports leagues built up the facade of competition, engrained it in their rulebooks, their practices and their customs — and in exchange the customer came, and well, spent. Now, while that picture of competition may not have been true at the game’s core - if there was really unbridled competition, why didn’t anybody do things like say, sign some Black folks before the 1950’s - it still served as the basic backbone for the social contract between leagues and fans. You agree to compete, I agree to spend, and we all get what we want.


But modern sports leagues are changing that. Across all sports there has been a noticeable

shift away from unbridled competition towards a more economically-ruthless form of entertainment for entertainment’s sake. Leagues have made the bet that entertainment isn’t

synonymous with competition and profiting off of the one doesn’t have to mean prioritizing the other. So they divert the bare minimum in resources necessary to on-field costs in pursuit of the

absolute maximum in profit margin.


Their goal isn’t simply to be cheap, their goal is to maximize profits. Now sometimes, like a large movie studio, their only route to maximizing revenue will mean paying certain players large salaries. That doesn’t discredit the plan. Disney spends hundreds of millions of dollars on their Marvel and Star Wars franchises, but they do it because they know that’s the best path forward to make the most money. Teams do the same. They’ll bite the bullet on an individual player because they know that player is an exceptional attraction. And exceptional attractions are sometimes necessary to generating the highest profit. But on the whole, almost every franchise is waging an unending war to pay their players as little as possible, for the shortest time needed, to maintain an optimal customer base. They don’t operate like teams, they operate like companies.


Think of the emergence of salary caps in leagues like the NFL and NBA. A cap essentially serves to protect owners from their own worst spending impulses. In a country draped in the gospel of free market thinking, it is one of the strangest accepted practices found in any industry. A cap limits the amount of money every team can spend on players by literally capping

resources at a set level, artificially suppressing the entire labor market. It is the billionaire’s equivalent of locking someone's credit card right before they step into a store. These owners are captains of industry, they've amassed sums of wealth vast enough to spread over ten lifetimes, and they’ve done all that to ensure they can spend whatever they want whenever they want without ever having to think twice about it.


And yet, here they are on a budget.


That is not an accident. For as much as popular discourse characterizes sports franchises as the extravagant playthings of the uber-wealthy, they are, increasingly and undeniably something more. Billionaires do not simply own multimillion-dollar businesses for fun. They own them for profit. And it is for that reason that so many sports leagues have begun to look and feel so inescapably corporate.


It’s why player salary growth lags in comparison to expanding revenue in the NFL. It’s why NBA championship contenders like the Milwaukee Bucks allow their starting point guards to leave in free agency, even when the only cost to keep them is money. Because an owner’s goal isn’t to compete, it is to compete enough — enough to make the playoffs, enough to attract viewers, enough to maximize profits. In the end, everything else is secondary.


That makes fandom incredibly perilous. How can you invest yourself in a franchise when you know that their sole goal is not to win but to earn? Pretty soon rooting for the Yankees, or the Bucks, or any NFL team starts to feel like you’re rooting for Amazon. Teams are corporations, and you realize you’re not a fan, you’re a customer.


Now the leagues would dispute this. They’d point to their viewership numbers and say they’ve never been more popular, and they might be right. Scripted entertainment is incredibly in-demand. Right now there are corporations that have virtually nothing to do with television

who have entered into a set of “streaming wars” against established entertainment giants like

Disney and HBO, just to stake out any claim in the television industry. Shoot, even scripted sports is fun to watch. WWE fans know those fights aren’t real but they still tune in. Because WWE is good entertainment — it’s just not Howie Kendrick clanging a ball off of that foul pole.


Because in that moment fans aren’t thinking about the salary cap or the revenue rate. They don’t care that both of the teams on the field are actually just companies. None of that matters when David slugs a fastball off Goliath into the right field seats. Because in that brief moment they can suspend their disbelief and for an instant, it’s all real. Will whatever spectacle that comes next be?


All stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference, MLB, FanGraphs, and Forbes.

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