Economic grievances, continued

(Update, November 21: This is an update to the Cobb County Stadium thread)…[As noted by Deadspin, “A Cobb County commissioner on why residents won’t get to vote on putting $300 million toward the Braves’ stadium: It would have to be a special election, and that would cost taxpayers 300, 400 thousand dollars.” 

I think that’s what they used to call “the new math.”

One Deadspin commenter wrote: “Thank God someone is looking out for the taxpayers by not wasting money to hear what the taxpayers think.”]

As baseball fans know, the Houston Astros have been absolutely pathetic in recent years. In 2013, they went 51-111, an expansion team level of performance. The last time they lost fewer than 100 games was in 2009. Their last winning season was in 2006. Like I said, pathetic. Houston, by the way, is not a “small market.” In fact, it’s one of the biggest in the country. I have written many times before about the small market shibboleth – the implication that when teams perform poorly, it is due to circumstances beyond their control because, for example, they play in small markets. In fact, to a much greater degree than sports media acknowledge, winning is a choice. Or, perhaps more to the point – abject failure of the sort that the Astros have experienced in recent years is a choice. Over the course of the 2013 season, the Astros were able to slash their payroll to $13 million. That’s Arod’s salary for 81 games (speaking of pathetic). As this Forbes article points out, 64 major league players earned more in 2013 than the Astros’ entire roster. But I’m not writing about the Astros because they currently stink (they are building up a good farm system. Baseball America ranks them second). I am writing about them because, according to the same Forbes article, the 2013 Houston Astros were the most profitable, in dollar terms, in major league history. Yep.

That low payroll is one key reason Stros’ owner Jim Crane was able to rake in so much cash this year. Another is television – the Astros receive $80 million a year from Comcast Sportsnet Houston for the rights to broadcast a putrid baseball team (as I was saying, Houston is *not* a small market). Houston also earns tens of millions more from other broadcasting sources.

When they can, sports owners often like to cry poverty. The Pittsburgh Pirates, for example,  in the midst of a record run of futility in the annals of North American sports that ended this season, used to claim as much, until leaked documents in 2010 showed they were making tens of millions of dollars a year. In 2001, while Commissioner Bud was insisting that the game’s finances were so stacked against small market teams that he was seriously considering shuttering four franchises, his own former club, the small market Milwaukee Brewers, were turning the largest profits of any Major League team.

As I’ve argued before, owners of major sports franchises really do get to have it all. They accrue all the psychic benefits of owning a team. They successfully leverage their position in monopoly markets to make big profits. They repeatedly manage to cajole local pols into structuring stadium deals that transfer wealth from ordinary taxpayers to their pockets. They and the entities that support them – the leagues – take advantage of absurd and customized tax breaks.

And every time there’s a new labor negotiation, or another municipality willing to pony up for the privilege of hosting a team, a nearly uniformly guileless sports media accepts at face value owners’ arguments that they’re running a business like any other, that because of players salaries, costs are a real problem and they can’t make money and that they are doing the rest of *us* a favor when they agree not to move their teams and when they agree to pay at least some part of the expense for stadiums being financed largely at public expense.

If you don’t have the time or energy to keep track of all the minutiae related to the business side of sports, just remember that Jim Crane, at least for the past three years, has been the most spectacular failure in Major League Baseball. And he’s being more handsomely rewarded for it than any owner before him.

In dollar terms, there are bigger rackets in American economic life. But I’m not sure there are more egregious ones.

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