Generally, when it comes to sports owners pleading poverty every time they have to renegotiate with players, I am completely unsympathetic. The “always side with labour over bosses” rule is never stronger than when one is talking about pro sports, because without the players there would literally be no product, and sports owners are some of the worst examples of management crying poverty that there ever have been – where their franchises have not become profitable and ridiculously appreciated in value over time (particularly in an era where they can very easily blackmail communities into handling much of their expenses), it is usually because of mismanagement on a scale that is truly ludicrous (cf. the Maloof brothers, owners of the Sacramento Kings, who have turned a traditionally profitable small-market team with a crazy-passionate fanbase and a city willing to help pay for an arena into a neverending disaster) and even then mismanagement is no guarantee that the franchise will not continue to be profitable anyway.
Ridiculous salaries? The teams are making the money, and the players are the reason the teams are making the money; really, the salaries are much more justifiable than the fact that the owners in most leagues usually end up taking about half of all the money the teams make on the basis that they own the team brands and pay the cheerleaders and such. LeBron James has the league maximum contract and, based on his personal fanbase, brand power, ability to help a team compete and everything else that comes with being the best basketball player in the world, he is widely regarded as being underpaid.1
But LeBron is underpaid not because he does not have a maximum contract, but because other players – like Rudy Gay or Joe Johnson, for example – have maximum contracts as well. If Rudy Gay is worth $14 million per year, then LeBron must comparatively be worth much more than that – or so the argument goes. Of course, you can as easily argue that Gay and Johnson2 are overpaid rather than LeBron being underpaid – but this only works if you accept that the salary cap determines actual maximum player value, rather than being, oh, a totally artificial construct that owners demanded long ago in order to maintain the illusion of parity between small market and large market teams and to give them bargaining power over players.
But why, then, are the likes of Gay and Johnson paid so much? The answer is a bit more than “because teams can.” Rather, it is because every free agent signing or contract extension that rewards a good-but-not-superstar-level player with a maximum contract – Gay, Johnson, A’Mare Stoudemire, Deron Williams, et cetera – is done because a team wants to win. NBA players – and pro athletes playing in team sports generally – chase two things: money and prestige. Money is self-explanatory. Prestige is playing in large markets, playing for an organization that wins titles regularly – your Celtics, your Yankees, your Man Uniteds – and winning titles. This means that franchises with a track record of success (and let’s be honest: these are usually, but not always, large-market franchises, because they have more money and because top players want to play in big cities where there are more fun things to do and you will be more famous) will always have more ability to sign good players than small-market teams that have no history of sustained competitive success.
Which means that small-market teams – or teams like the Toronto Raptors, who aren’t technically a small-market team, but who get treated like one because it’s Canada – feel, rightly or wrongly, that they have to overspend in order to get quality players to stay in their town. This is not exactly true, but it’s true enough in a league where two teams (Boston and the Lakers) have won about half of the championships. So GMs overspend on players to create the sense that they are where The Good Players Go To Play so they can sign some more players – who also end up being overpaid when GMs try this strategy. And sometimes this strategy works (the Miami Heat). And sometimes it does not (the Raptors).
And I have been trying to figure out how the league might stop doing this, but I am hamstrung in two respects. Firstly, it’s a classic prisoner’s dilemma – if one team says “WE will overpay the good players” and nobody else does, then they will get their pick of the best players and while they might not be the best team, they will be very good and competitive for a few years (which is the point because GMs don’t stick around a team forever anyway and they want their tenure to be successful) and if they’re very good and competitive for a few years then the odds that players will begin to view them as a good place to play will increase. (It happened to the Houston Rockets, and Houston the city is, well, kinda shitty.) And there’s not a good way to rule around prisoner’s dilemmas that I can think of.
And second, like I said – this problem exists because of an artificial construct on player salaries that the bosses use as rhetorical and real leverage whenever they like, so I am not particularly inclined to want to solve it in the first place.
- Since a lot of nerds read this blog I am anticipating the usual bunch of “well I don’t even WATCH sports and I don’t GET sports” comments. Dear nerds: there is quite possibly nothing more fucking annoying than that in the entire world, except when you are misogynistic and/or homophobic. So don’t do it. Don’t do the other bad things either. [↩]
- Yes, yes, get your snickering fit over with now. [↩]