The Business of Baseball

If you follow baseball, you will inevitably hear someone say, “It’s a business.” Most people never stop to think about what a strange statement that is. On the one hand, it means different things depending on who uses it. On the other, it doesn’t really mean anything at all. Whichever hand you choose, it’s clearly meant to shut down conversations rather than start them.

When a GM or owner says, “It’s a business,” what is really meant is, “I know you don’t like this, but please don’t blame me. I had no choice. It’s a business with budgets and numbers and whatnot. Blame the business. Please, blame the business.” When the players say, “It’s a business,” what is really meant is, “I really hate what my team is doing, but I know if I complain openly, people will call me a whiner. I better say something so boring and non-committal that they’ll stop asking me questions. Please stop asking me questions.” When a reporter or analyst says, “It’s a business,” what is really meant is, “You can tell that I’m good at my job because I’m so jaded and cynical. I understand that players are commodities and fans are consumers. Please believe that I’m good at my job.” When fans say, “It’s a business,” what is really meant is, “Screw you. I live and die with this team, but I’m not going to let you hurt me anymore. Please stop hurting me.”

This is not unique to baseball. In any walk of life, layoffs are justified with, “It’s a business.” Employees try to shield themselves with, “It’s a business.” And consumers voice their displeasure with, “It’s a business.”

While it is true that baseball is a business, it is only trivially true. That is what makes the statement meaningless. Baseball is a business. Your doctor’s office is a business. Your kid’s daycare is a business. The corner gas station is a business. Your bank is a business. Your internet provider is a business. None of those statement tell you anything about baseball, doctors, daycare, gas stations, banks, or internet providers. Even though they are all businesses, they do not all have the same goals. They do not all have the same methods for achieving their goals. Saying that baseball is a business does not tell you anything about what a baseball team should be trying to do or how it should be trying to do it.

When a team does something like raising ticket prices, trading a player, or cutting payroll don’t be fooled by the explanation, “It’s a business.” Baseball is in no way a normal business. Most business can justify themselves by saying, “I’m here to make money. I saw an opportunity to become more profitable, so I took it.” Baseball is a legal monopoly. Baseball lets competing organizations vote on who is going to own a team. Can you imagine Chase, Wells Fargo, and Bank of America getting together to vote on who gets to own Citibank? Baseball is a spectator sport. The goal of baseball is to entertain the fans. That is the business of baseball.

Quite a bit goes into entertaining the fans. Obviously, each team needs to make enough money to pay their employees, maintain their facilities, etc. They need to field entertaining players that the fans like. Winning is more enjoyable than losing. But, winning is not the business of baseball. The Cubs haven’t won in over a hundred years, but they are a very successful team. Anyone who goes to Chicago for the first time is told they have to see Wrigley, not US Cellular Field, even though the White Sox win more. Becoming a part of the community, or even a civic institution, can be huge for the fans.

All of the things that go into entertaining the fans create a delicate balance. It is difficult maintaining that balance. If a team raises ticket prices, they can afford better players, but they make it difficult for families to go to the games. If they sign a high priced free agent as a fan draw, they may block a promising prospect. If they trade a beloved player, they may get improved play on the field, but lose fan support. These are the decisions that baseball teams need to make. None of those decisions are made because, “It’s a business.”

GMs, owners, and players need to start being honest about the decisions they make and why they make them. The press needs to start asking for the actual reasons behind decisions. If fans continually feel like they are being lied to, if they don’t feel respected, they will find other ways to entertain themselves.  If that happens, baseball will have failed at its core business.

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