As Major League Baseball’s postseaon draws to a close attention will soon shift to the impending expiration of Major League Baseball’s Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) in December. Along with talks of playoff expansion, an international draft, and revenue sharing demands for a salary cap will inevitably emerge from all corners. From Brewers owner, Mark Attanasio who responded to C.C. Sabathia’s defection of the Yankees in 2009 by saying, “At the rate the Yankees are going, I’m not sure anyone can compete with them, . . . Frankly, the sport might need a salary cap.” Or John Feinstein, an award winning columnist at the Washington Post, who wrote, “[A salary cap] is . . . an absolute necessity in the world we live in just as the humiliating experience we all go through anytime we get on an airplane is also an absolute necessity.” And of course there is the ever-popular rallying cry among fans that a salary cap will lead to better competitive balance and reduce ticket prices – neither of which are accurate.
So while the vast majority of the media, owners and baseball fans will insist that a salary cap is necessary to further baseball’s best interests, I’ll tell you why that conclusion couldn’t be further from the truth.
First, let’s address the common misconception that Major League Baseball should have a salary cap so it can be competitive like the NFL. While the NFL is an example of a successful league with a salary cap, the truth is that the NFL’s ostensible competitive balance is a function of a number of factors – the least of which is its salary cap. The NFL’s parity can be attributed to its relatively short regular season schedule, the availability of 12 postseason berths, a single elimination playoff format, fixed scheduling to benefit weaker teams and a reverse-order draft where players can make a significant impact relatively quickly. Just imagine what Major League Baseball would look like if it implemented policies similar to the NFL’s to increase competitive balance. We probably wouldn’t be having this discussion right now. The bottom line here is that arguments contending that baseball should have a salary cap simply because the NFL has one are lazy and ill-advised.
Furthermore, lost in this debate is the fact that 9 of the past 10 World Series titles have been won by different clubs – the Boston Red Sox were the only repeat champion winning in 2004 and 2007. Compare that with the fact that either the Patriots or Steelers have claimed 5 of the past 10 Lombardi Trophies. And don’t bother mentioning the NBA where 9 of the past 13 championships have been won by either the Lakers or Spurs, and over 75% of NBA titles have belonged to one of four teams – the Lakers, Bulls, Pistons, or Spurs – since the league introduced a salary cap in the 1984-85 season.
Those like Frank Deford may argue that the absence of a salary cap makes baseball predictable. Sure, the Yankees spend more than anybody in baseball on players and have only missed the postseason once since 1994, but they only have one championship in the last 10 years to show for it. If anything, the AL East has competitive-balance issues, but baseball as a whole is not lacking competitive intrigue. And in case you’ve already forgotten, this year the AL East didn’t lack excitement even among teams playing their 162nd game of the season. Just watch this and this. Certainly baseball knows better than to impose a salary cap on the entire league to cure the perceived ills of the AL East or to give mismanaged organizations a better opportunity to succeed.
Ultimately, a salary cap is nothing more than a mechanism to reduce labor costs and further enrich ownership. It does little to facilitate competitive balance and it certainly isn’t in the best interests of the fans or the game itself. So unless you’d prefer transferring wealth from millionaires (the players) to billionaires (the owners), hard caps should have no appeal to you. That’s about all that salary caps accomplish.