The Winning versus Wealth Debate… The Bad Business of Winning

Read the opposing argument from Loyal Homer.

Recently some leaked documents blew the lid off of one of the worst kept secrets in sports – the Pittsburgh Pirates aren’t exactly trying too hard to win. Absolutely shocking, isn’t it? But breaking news reveals the mind blowing truth, that a team which hasn’t had a winning record in 18 seasons may not have their financial priorities set on winning.

Now that the sports world has officially lost its innocence – having been to Oz, met the man behind the curtain, and learned the ugly truth that some teams value dollar signs more than a W – what does this mean for the future of sports? And what next? I suppose someone will try to tell us that mascots aren’t real either. Yeah right. Like I’m going believe there isn’t a mute, jersey wearing gorilla. that likes to dunk basketballs off of trampolines in Phoenix, Arizona, or that there never was a real-life giant yellow, baseball loving chicken roaming the greater San Diego Area. That will be the day.

The answer to today’s debate question – whether or not governing agencies of professional sports force teams to pursue winning rather than earnings – is a resounding no! Profitability is its own form of success. Not every team can win the championship, but each season teams can try to earn more money than the last and use that income to sign better players, make stadium renovations, or improve in any manner they see fit. Don’t believe me? Ask the Washington Redskins, who routinely rake in a pile of money. While the franchise’s win-loss record may not seem like they are accomplishing that much, the bank account is another story entirely. And it is that same bank account that makes the signing of players like Albert Haynesworth possible (whether the aforementioned signing works amicably with others is a different story entirely.)

The point is a few bad apples (the Pittsburgh Pirates) should not ruin the whole bunch. Some small market teams have devoted fan bases that simply want to watch their town’s pros play on a regular basis, even though they may have no hope of being a contender for the league championship (I’m talking to you, fans of the Cleveland Browns, Kansas City Royals, and Minnesota Timberwolves). Should these teams be forced to scrap their individuality and adopt the culture and spending strategies of their bigger market counterparts, robbing them of their uniqueness? The answer is another big no, because it is impossible to regulate such an intangible subject as a “winning strategy.” There is absolutely no way to effectively regulate the approach teams take towards winning, largely because no single path leads to success.

Baseball illustrates this point perfectly. Where one organization may build its roster around dominating pitching, another club may feel that a potent lineup will carry the club to the pos-tseason. Strategies vary even more when you consider that some teams prefer to groom prospects from the minors (e.g. the Atlanta Braves) while other clubs prefer to take advantage of trades and free agency (e.g. the New York Yankees) to acquire their big guns. Those are very different approaches which will come with very different price tags.

Any plan to encourage teams to emphasize winning over economic success would certainly place rules on minimum spending and participation in financial ventures such as free agency. Baseball, football, basketball, and other professional sports all have a fair share of underachieving teams that probably don’t put as many resources into teams as they get out of them. But any effort to stipulate how teams spend money in pursuit of a winning strategy would surely end in disaster. Such capricious disregard for an organization’s autonomy undermines most teams’ efforts at rebuilding and would create unnecessary bureaucracy during the off-season. While encouraging teams to reach their full potential is a noble goal, this simply isn’t the path to accomplish it.

But if, perhaps, the brain trust behind this conformist push were successful, the most likely scenario would be minimum team salaries and quotas for off-season spending. This would raise the bar for a leagues lowest achievers, but it certainly wouldn’t put them into contention with the biggest spenders. The Yankees, Lakers, and Cowboys are still going to acquire the highest price talent on the market, and the miserly teams like the Pirates are still going to do the bare bones minimum to meet league regulations. This approach does not eliminate the existence of “haves” and “have nots” in a sport, it mandates that penny-pinching teams go through the motions of acting more competitive. Forcing a team to spend arbitrarily to meet a predetermined benchmark is not a means to the intended end of encouraging teams to pursue winning. It’s an exercise in futility.

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