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Competitive balance emerging09/27/2007 11:00 AM ET
By Mike Bauman
The era of parity is fully upon us. Well, not exactly economic parity, but certainly competitive parity. The second one is more fun anyway.
Look around. Do you see any single team that absolutely dominated the 2007 baseball season? Do you see any team that was absolutely atrocious, completely unable to compete?
We should be getting a "no" in each case. There has only been one season in modern baseball history when there was no club above a .600 winning percentage, and no club below .400. Yet, that's the neighborhood we're in now.
This has been baseball's direction during the commissionership of Bud Selig, with increased revenue sharing and the advent of the luxury tax. It is a direction that was specifically designed to give more franchises an opportunity to win, to spread around "the hope and faith" that the Commissioner believes are the basic commodities baseball owes to its fans.
This has worked splendidly, up to a point. The New York Yankees still will not be confused with the Kansas City Royals when it comes to franchise revenue or player payroll.
But baseball, whose economic model was once close to free market capitalism, has moved toward the model of the National Football League. The NFL, where the primary revenue sources are shared equally, regardless of market size, and a hard salary cap is in place, is essentially in that way socialistic. Baseball hasn't adopted that model and it probably never will. But baseball has become much more like a Western European welfare state, in which the poorer franchises can at least now be assured that they will not starve at the turnstiles.
The results have been fairly clear and not only in the standings. Baseball had a fourth straight season of record attendance because, between the increased revenue sharing and the Wild Card, more teams had a legitimate shot at getting to October, and thus more fans had more reasons for remaining interested enough to buy tickets.
And look what happens at the trading deadline. In the past, small-market franchises would be dumping salaries and trading stars. Now, there is a lot of talk about that happening, but the reality is, it doesn't happen.
It's the same thing with the free-agent market. With more small-market teams able to retain their best players, the free-agent market is thinner. This is very good news for the top-end free agents who become available, such as Barry Zito ($126 million contract) or Alfonso Soriano ($136 million deal). And if you haven't seen enough evidence of that trend, check out this offseason's free-agent pitching market, which will define the term "slim pickings."
There have been instances in which small-market franchises have become big players in the free-agent market. Last winter, for instance, Kansas City signed Gil Meche to a $55 million contract and Milwaukee signed Jeff Suppan to a $42 million deal. It may be that we are merely in a situation now in which the little guys can overspend just like the big guys, but at somewhat less colossal amounts. Still, the equity argument persists. At least the less wealthy clubs can now dream the large dreams and spend the semi-huge money.
Revenue sharing has changed the face of the game in that way. The gross amount of revenue sharing for 2007 is estimated at close to $350 million. More than $100 million of that amount is expected to come from the Yankees. This sort of thing would have been unthinkable in baseball not that long ago. Today, Robin Hood is a baseball role model, although the "robbing from the rich" terminology, which could be troubling, has been replaced by "marginal redistribution of income."
The last seven World Series have produced seven different winners, and three of those have been from something other than mega-markets. In baseball's earlier alleged golden era, if you weren't from one borough of New York or another, the record says you didn't win the big one all that often.
And with all of this, baseball is simply more prosperous than it has ever been. Its drawing power has become global, because its talent pool has become global. (No, there are no players from Antarctica, but there are Red Sox fans working there at remote scientific outposts.)
Baseball is still far from a level economic playing field. But parity, or more politely, competitive balance, is more of a reality than a distant theoretical concept in Baseball 2007. The overall health of the game, as demonstrated by the competition on the field, has been the beneficiary.
This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.