The debate over parity – or the lack thereof - in MLB was reignited this fall, prompted in part by the Red Sox all but guaranteeing Adrian Gonzalez $154 million over seven years and four days later signing free agent Carl Crawford to a seven-year, $142 million contract. To be sure, few clubs have the financial wherewithal to guarantee almost $300 million in salaries to two players. But does that prove there is a lack of parity in baseball?
To answer the question we first have to define what we’re talking about. Is it economic parity, where every club has the ability to generate seemingly endless streams of revenue? If that’s your definition of parity, the answer is a definitive no; parity in MLB doesn’t exist. But economic parity has never existed in the history of professional baseball. At no time have Kansas City and Oakland had financial resources equal to their brethren in New York, Boston, Chicago and Los Angeles. Nor is that situation likely to change in the future, unless revenue sharing is taken to the extreme.
But if your definition of parity is competitiveness on the field, which in this view it should be, by at least one standard of measurement, MLB has parity that is equal to or greater than the kind that exists in the other three Major League team sports. Between 2000 and 2010, fifteen different teams have played in the World Series. That’s the same number of teams that have played for the league title in the last eleven seasons in the NHL and NFL, the supposed holy grail of parity. The NBA lags behind the other three leagues with eleven. During that same period, nine different teams have won the World Series, the same number that has won the Stanley Cup in the NHL. Eight different teams have won the Super Bowl while only five teams have won the NBA Finals.
Admittedly, those facts provide little consolation to the fans in Pittsburgh, who have lived through an almost unfathomable streak of 18 straight years with a losing record. Nor is it good news to baseball fans that wake up every off-season morning hoping to read some positive news about their team’s activities in the Hot Stove League.
But there’s no reason Pittsburgh can’t be competitive on the field of play, even in the National League Central, a division that includes the spendthrift Cubs (and how is that working out for Cubby fans?). The model for the Pirates shouldn’t be the Red Sox or their evil twin, the Yankees, but the Tampa Bay Rays. Better yet, the Pirates should try to emulate the Reds and Brewers, small market, lower revenue clubs, both of whom play in the same division as the Pirates.
While economic disparity will always exist among MLB teams, revenue sharing has served to narrow the gap and make those differences virtually inconsequential for well-managed teams. As Maury Brown of the Biz of Baseball reported earlier this month, revenue sharing in MLB totaled $404 million during 2010.
The justification for revenue sharing is open to debate. Some teams, such as the hopelessly incompetent Pirates, pocket their revenue sharing proceeds. That’s the equivalent of robbing from the rich – read, Yankees and Red Sox - and giving to the poor. Others, such as the Rays, have used their windfall wisely. Despite the loss of numerous free agents after last season, the Rays are guaranteed to remain competitive with the Yankees and Red Sox because of the talent remaining on their Major League roster, their overflowing farm system, and the judicious use of the bushel of draft picks coming their way as compensation for losing those free agents. In other words, the Rays have good management.
In 2010, only three teams with payrolls in the top ten made the playoffs. On the other hand, the Texas Rangers with a payroll around $55 million, approximately one quarter of the Yankees’ payroll and the 27th smallest in the league, played in the World Series.
So the next time someone laments the lack of parity in MLB, ask them what kind of parity they’re talking about. Are they referring to the kind that’s found in a checkbook or the kind that’s exhibited on the field of play? I submit it’s only the latter that counts.
Jordan Kobritz is a staff member of the Business of Sports Network. He is a former attorney, CPA, and Minor League Baseball team owner. He is an Assistant Professor of Sport Management at Eastern New Mexico University and teaches the Business of Sports at the University of Wyoming. He looks forward to your comments and can be contracted, here.
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