The High Price of Leisure

I had in mind for some time to set down my thoughts regarding the recent signing of Mike Trout to a contract approximately the size of an urban budget, but I didn’t want to give a knee jerk response to it (which would have been “That’s ridiculous– he’s not the 2nd coming of Babe Ruth– why does hyperbole always seem to translate to huge payouts?). I know that these sorts of things are always a matter of degree, and there are many variables that go into the determination of what something (or someone) is worth.

The simplistic answer to that is– a thing is worth whatever someone is willing to pay for it. And at that level, there is plenty of room for disagreement. Many of us, for example, would look at a high priced piece of art and say (even if we thought it was good), “Why would I ever want to spend that kind of money for something whose value is tied up simply in how much I admire it?”. And of course, the answer to that question ends up being more than just simple. A thing can have value simply by association; If I have high quality art items in my home, then it speaks to my taste, and is an indirect indicator of affluence, and for many people, demonstrating taste and wealth are important considerations.

Before you think I’m getting sidetracked, let me point out that it’s not much different with a star player. The perception of value often is the driving factor. It might well be true that 3 players who are very good, would end up being cheaper than 1 player who is a “star”, and it might even be true that an organization would be better off spending it’s money that way, in terms of Wins and losses for the team. But in the end, decisions like this often have less to do with Wins & Losses, and more to do with “creating an impression of taste & wealth”. If an owner spends this kind of money (as the LA Angels have done), they can say to their fan base, “See? We have the taste to not undervalue our superstar, and we have the wealth to keep him”. This can seem like a big win to management. And it’s easy for them to imagine that fans would accuse them of being “cheap skates” if they let their future Hall of Famer go elsewhere. Jim Rome in his radio show stated that the Angels “couldn’t afford NOT to sign Trout.

If you doubt this is true, consider that the Angels are paying Albert Pujols almost as much per year as they are about to pay Trout, and Pujols hit .241 & .245 the last 2 years, and he is signed to play thru 2022. You may say that they expected Pujols to perform at a higher level? Let’s suppose that to be true. Wouldn’t you think that, given their experience with that contract that they would be gun-shy about handing out another one of even greater sum and length? But I would argue that they didn’t necessarily even expect great performance out of Pujols. But that rather, they paid him because it looked good to the fan base, and that they could say “we’re willing to spend money to make our team good, and we have the money to spend”.

From 2012 to 2018 (7 years), the Angels have had 3 winning seasons, and Trout and Pujols have been full-time players all 7 years. So now they have both players locked up thru 2022 (longer for Trout) but what have they really gained? They now, in fact, have lost cap space, as Trout and Pujols have now chunked off 50 to 60 million per year between them. At some point they’ll have to figure out how they are going to keep young wunderkind Shohei Ohtani, who will be eligible for Salary Arbitration after the 2020 season. The Angels are in the peculiar situation of almost having to hope he doesn’t get too good too fast.

So what have they gained? I’ll beat this dead horse once more: They have given the fan base the impression that they are not cheap, and they have the dough. Never mind that this doesn’t necessarily translate into improved Wins & Losses– as far as Angel Management goes, it will lead to increased ticket sales, at least in the short run, and they likely will hope that they win just enough that fans won’t become disenchanted.

It would seem that this is a case of Style triumphing, as it often does, over substance, and that while they may not end up with a well-balance team, they can at least boast “Marquis” players on their roster.

Prices in 2019 are 8.27 x higher (on average) than prices in 1963. I mention this because in 1963 the price of a Box Seat ticket at the World Series was 12 dollars, and a bleacher ticket was 2 dollars. A World Series program sold for 50 cents. If we do the math, that would translate to $99.24 for a Box Seat to a World Series Game in 2019, and 16.54 for a bleacher seat.

By Contrast, Tickets to the World Series Games in Boston in 2018 went for an AVERAGE of $ 1,700 dollars a piece! You see what I’m getting at? I know this is just one example, but World Series Tickets have Jumped MORE than 17 times what they were in 1963, WHEN ADJUSTED FOR INFLATION!

What does all this mean? It means that we are paying more than ever in REAL DISPOSABLE income for the games that we watch. And we, apparently, are willing accomplices to this “highway robbery”. If we are to be honest, we can’t say the games are really better, or more entertaining than ever, even allowing that this is a subjective judgement. But what we have done is we’ve passively accepted the increases.

But it goes farther than that. No fan base, or local talk radio, has ever applauded the local sports teams for their “frugal approach”. In fact, we blithely exhort them to spend money (really, in the end, OUR money) to “buy a winner”. But in this, we don’t even have good judgement. Because, we want stars– larger than life players who we can buy jerseys bearing their names, and who can give us the feeling that our team is something special. Very few fans talk energetically about having good “role players” that will give the team the best chance to win games.

Now is the cart pulling the horse, or the horse pulling the cart? Do owners go for flash and sizzle over competitiveness of the team? Or do they just give us what we want? It would seem to be a bit of both. But any time we want to grouse about how much corporate executives make, we should keep in mind that at least they are paid by their companies based on their abilities (or perceived abilities, admittedly) but not based on what the public thinks about them. And if we think athletes or movie or TV stars are paid too much, we should be sobered by the knowledge that we are, collectively, ponying up the dollars to pay those “ridiculous” salaries.

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