Sunday, November 01, 2015

Innocent as Children

My Mets are losing the World Series.

I'm OK with that. Truth is,  I've watched about three innings of the Series in total. I may have watched nine all playoffs long.

Which is actually more than I watched all season.

That doesn't mean I don't have an emotional attachment to them. I do, and want them to sweep the next three games and take the trophy out from under KC's feet. They can do it. The one thing this team has demonstrated over the season is the ability to turn adversity into wins (see: Wilmer Flores) and there's no reason to think that a team that should be up three games to one can't win three in a row, particularly one that has ben as streaky as the Mets season suggests.

That I know all that is a testament to my loyalty to the team. That said, it saddens me what sports has become in this country, and I think it's a large part of the underlying troubles we endure right now.

For instance, the reason I'm a wishy-washy fan when it comes to watching my team on the TeeVee. For not the first time in my life, I can't, and not because I'm superstitious or some such, but for a more prosaic cause.

The Mets network isn't carried on DISH and I'm more loyal to people who do right by me than I am to people who present a product and tell me to take it or leave it (In order not to sidetrack this discussion, let me just say that DISH has worked hard in the thirty years or so that I've been with them to keep me as customer, keeping my costs down while putting together programming and service to suit my needs).

SNY is not carried by DISH -- neither is MSG or YES, for that matter, which prevents me from following nearly every other local sports team on a regular basis except football, ironically the most socialist of all sports -- so the only games I can watch are the ones on networks or on the local broadcast outlet, WPIX. Those number maybe a dozen or so.

They were, but the Mets decided to abandon whatever percentage of Mets fans have DISH when DISH didn't buckle into their somewhat outrageous demands. Profit, before product.

The first time the Mets abandoned a significant portion of their fan base, that time was a lot harder to swallow. The team decided to take nearly all games off over-the-air broadcasts and put them on cable TV (first on Cablevision's SportsChannel, which morphed into FoxSports NY, and then ultimately to SNY, the Mets-owned outlet).

The team banked on fan loyalty to carry it through these, and they were pretty much spot on in this. As more and more cable subscribers signed on (that's another story, the roll out of cable in NYC), the team grew a larger fan base.

All the while, every month, nibbling away at the combined pocketbooks of their fans, even when the season was over. Profit, over product.

I wrote all that to personalize the rest of this post, which is really about the business of sports.

I could bore you with statistics and numbers about the growth and mutation of sports from entertainment to a large and wildly profitable business, but let me put it on a human scale for you.

When I was a kid, watching the Mets on a 19" black and white Philco, the average ballplayer made less than the average union worker. He had to take a job to feed his family until training camp opened up, usually blue collar since college sports was what it should be, a sidelight to getting an education, so most players if they wanted a major league career refused to forfeit four years of their prime for a degree.

If he was smart and good looking, maybe he quarterbacked the local team, he could get a white collar job in a bank or a brokerage, entertaining clients. Only the really big stars, the Willie Mayses or the Joe Namaths, made enough from endorsement contracts to tide them over between seasons, or could command a contract big enough to allow them to focus on their careers and not on survival after the season.

And God forbid you have a career ending injury, altho that happened all too frequently. You had no education, no job prospects (because, really, how many jobs require you to hit a 0-2 curve ball?) and an aching body. It's no wonder that, even today, all professional sports unions have to provide charitable help for their forebears, forty years after the explosion of money in sports.

Today? Even a slightly-better-than average player (say, Daniel Murphy, since he's on my mind, who has an average WAR over 162 games...I'll get to the statistics thing in a bit....of 2.27, meaning he'll give you almost three wins more than the average second baseman. A great player can give you ten or more extra wins) can command tens of millions of dollars a year.

The average player doesn't need to work a second job. He has healthcare through his union or his team, is vested in a pension based on his salary after a certain number of years playing (and is partially vested starting on day one of his contract).

None of this is to begrudge large money contracts. I'd rather a millionaire kid who busted his ass and forsook his youth take a few million than let some rich trust fund kid who happened to cobble together enough money from his inheritance or the markets take it.

Indeed, that's the point. The contracts are indicative of precisely how much money there is to be made in sports, if you can afford to take the risk (and once you reach a certain threshold, the risk is zero).

Case in point: my Mets. Concurrent with the launch of the SNY Network, the Mets also built an entirely new stadium, primarily with private funds (there were some municipal funds that targeted renovating the surrounding neighborhood and that's an entirely different story).

The owners, the Wilpons, were also friends with one Bernie Madoff, who suggested many years ago that they invest their money with him. Presumably, an awful lot of that loot was tied up into the stadium and cable channel deals. The Wilpons made money with Madoff, to be sure, so much so that, if not for an arbiter who took a very lenient view to their cause, they likely would be bankrupt today, forced to sell the team and channel.

As it is, they spent an awful lot of the last decade on a very tight team budget, what with building up reserves for the new stadium, the new channel (they lost all that guaranteed income from FoxSports, as well as a lot of fans who had to wait until SNY was carried on their provider), then building a reserve in anticipation of the Madoff decision.

In practically terms, this meant the on-field product suffered, since baseball is a business, not a sport, and athletes expect to be paid, and paid well. They aren't doing it for the love of the game anymore than the Wilpons are giving away a product for free.

The short story, then, is the team sucked, the fans hated it and Citifield, a really beautiful ballpark, was basically empty for five seasons. Money was being lost hand over fist. Attempts to make changes that involved as little expenditure as possible (moving in outfield fences, twice, making the park's best quality, a pitcher's park, one of its worst) were made, but they didn't help. It was a dismal place to be.

Once the favorable decision was handed down -- $75 million instead of $162 million -- things seemed to ease up, and spending commenced. That was in February of this year. Not coincidentally, the Mets made the World Series that same season, even if it was not smooth sailing the entire way.

In 1964, the entirety of MLB made $21 million dollars in television revenues nationally, all teams, including local TV deals. . The average player's salary of $15,000 (adjust to 2002 dollars, respectively, $123 million and $85,000). In 2001, the last year for which figures can be compiled, the national TV revenue jumps to an eye-popping $1 billion (average salary, $2.4 million). Note that, because teams are all privately held, we can't even put together a total television revenue figure anymore. That's just the national contract for FOX and ESPN (among others).

We can't even estimate what the local contracts paid out, but someone has tried and calculated a few billion dollars more annually, making the entire revenue package for baseball upwards of $8 billion dollars (including tickets, merchandising and other sources). Using those same estimates, as recently as 1995, baseball took in about $2 billion in real dollars ($1.4 billion unadjusted). That's about a 7% return every year for twenty years in real dollars.

Staggering. It also explains the rise over the past two decades of the statistical analysis of games and players. I mentioned WAR earlier, or Wins Above Replacement. What this measures is the amount a player contributes to the wins his team gets each year. I don't want to get too technical so let's make this brief.

The average wins a team has each year is 81 (there's 162 game schedule and for every win, there has to be a loss, so the league average is 81-81. It has to be). That hypothetical average .500 team is populated with precisely average players, then. If you replace that hypothetical average player (who hits .250, by the way; again, the league average) with any other player, how many wins does that player contribute to the team (or deducts, as the case maybe. Again, for every above average player, there must be a below average player).

So a player with a positive WAR helps your team be better. Daniel Murphy helps slightly more than the hypothetical average player over the course of a season, giving you 1.6% better team. To put that into perspective, a team with 95 wins, which usually means its playoff bound, is about 60% better than average. He helps. Just not that much.

Back when players worked as grave diggers in the off-season and families owned baseball teams and precious little else, teams could afford to assess players by the seats of their pants. There was a lot of scouting, talk about "five tool players" (run, throw, hit for average, hit for power, and field), and whether a guy had a "good attitude" (e.g. he could be counted on to make curfew). There was some statistical analysis -- batting average, ERA, slugging and fielding percentages -- but they were rudimentary and fairly unreliable for decision making.

Back in the late 1970s, just after the introduction of free agency, and just as sports was becoming a billion dollar business in America and the world and computers were becoming something more than a defense contractor's wet dream, a group of statisticians and mathematicians decided that baseball needed an upgrade. Forming the Society of Baseball Research and led by Bill James, sabermetrics was born.

The goal was simple: to try and understand why some teams win, and some teams lose. What factors play into this? Was there a way to codify differences in the outlying circumstances for a particular player that would allow a manager to assess a player objectively (apply the scientific method to baseball, in other words)?

This could only have been accomplished with computers, of course. The massive amounts of data involved make this physically impossible, even with a good calculator.

Naturally, as the science evolved, it started to attract interest from ball clubs desperate to field a winning team.

Because winning teams attract money. Just ask the Yankees or Dodgers.

Titles are nice, but money is nicer. That really could be the motto of all sports nowadays. But look what happens: once you start to codify precisely how to maximize the utility of your roster of players, you put yourself into a mindset of maximizing the utility of your entire investment.

Sports becomes less game and more business. It becomes less about raising a trophy over your head and more about raising your dividend.

And that sucks the joy out of anything. Just ask anyone who works a job. Or runs a small business.

Once you introduce serious money into an industry, you start to attract serious businessmen. It's like farming: once a businessman realizes that your family farm is underutilized and could make a lot more money, he'll make an offer to buy you out.

If you sell, the farm will stop growing potatoes, and start growing soybeans. Or worse, if it's in a valuable location, it'll start sprouting condos and mini-malls. It doesn't really matter if those potatoes were the best in the business, or if you fed an awful lot of families who needed the food. It only matters how many dollars could be combed out of your furrows.

The same construct happens with sports teams, which aren't so much "teams" anymore as attractions for the mini-mall that a ballfield has become.

Sports is not alone in this, to be sure. Everything has a price tag on it now, right down to the local news broadcast, which increasingly is filled with promotional pieces for the latest premiere from the flagship film company that owns the station, or whatnot.

But sports holds a particular place in the hearts of Americans. Baseball, especially. After all...and I quote:
The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It has been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game: it's a part of our past, Ray. It reminds of us of all that once was good and it could be again. 
Which is why it still hurts to see my Mets losing, even tho they lost me years ago. In the end, I see Wilmer Flores crying at second base and I think back to Bud Harrelson and how much heart he played with. And I see Noah Syndergaard throwing a hundred mile fastball at someone and channeling Nolan Ryan. And I see Jacob de Grom with his wild hair, and Michael Conforto and Steven Matz, and look back to Tom Seaver and Ed Kranepool and John Matlack, heroes of my childhood.

I'm reminded as I watch that this team that I follow has a history with me, and that history was a bigger part of my life than it should have been (even if I was thrilled when a Mets scout once told the adult me I could have been a big leaguer). Sports plays on that nostalgia, baseball more than others. It's long been promoted as a multigenerational game -- a dad tossing a ball with his daughter, a little boy biting into a hot dog at his first ballgame, grandsons and granddaughters arguing statistics with grandpa.

And we'll gladly fork over hundreds or thousands of dollars a year without even thinking about it, for it is money that we have and peace that we lack.

For me, baseball was about the only thing my dad and I shared a passion for. That was an innocent time, a better place. A part of me that was once good.

But never can be again, and I'm having a hard time reconciling myself to that.

Lets Go Mets!