Does the Dodgers' new TV deal spell doom for small-market clubs?

Harry How

Everybody knew the Dodgers would make a killing on their next TV deal. But are the actual numbers big enough to destroy Major League Baseball's delicate balance of power?

As you've probably heard, it seems that baseball's rich are only getting richer, with the Yankees getting a huge payment for a big chunk of the YES Network and the Dodgers about to sign a MASSIVE new TV deal. This is definitely going to change some things; for sure, the players are going to make a lot more money. Simply because it's going to be there for them to make. How you feel about that probably says something about your take on labor vs. capital. The fact is that somebody is getting it; we just don't know the exact balance yet. The good news is probably that with so much money floating around, it'll be harder for anyone to get the dander up for a strike or a lockout.

But with all that money, there are bound to be worries. And for Exhibit A, I offer a couple of snippets from Yahoo columnist Jeff Passan's alarming column:

Yes, it's true that baseball shares 34 percent of its local revenues and that the Dodgers will be forced to give $80 million-plus of that TV money to the relatively poor. That still leaves them with a bigger deal than any team – and upwards of 20 times that of Atlanta, one of the best franchises in baseball that happens to be saddled with the sport's worst television contract for 20 more years as a term of its sale.

--snip--

Every chance he gets, Selig prattles on about baseball being in a Golden Era. In some respects, he's right. The fan experience is at its apex. The game itself never has been of higher quality. Baseball, in a vacuum, is quite superb.

And yet the sport is not played there. It is in real life, where Selig and the owners over whom he presides and the players who are in their employ worship the dollar, bow to it and judge themselves by it. Never, in that respect, has baseball found itself so gilded.

Nor, sadly, has it found itself so vulnerable to the vagaries set to come simply because the sport couldn't harness its own greed.

Vigilance is commendable. But as the occasional historian in the room, I should point out that similar warnings have been sounded since ... well, probably since forever. And for decades and decades in the American League, there was a real problem, with the Yankees outspending everybody and taking half the pennants. More than half.

So let's just go back 45 years. When free agency came into the game in 1976, most of the BBWAA predicted utter catastrophe for the sport, with a few big-market teams pricing everybody else out of the market. And to some degree that happened. Early on, the Yankees usually got whomever they wanted. They got Catfish Hunter (who didn't really work out so well) and Reggie Jackson (who did). And beginning in 1976, the Yankees won five division titles in six years. But the Royals won four in five years, and so did the Phillies. The Dodgers did well, too.

Then came the 1980s, when the full impact of free agency should have just been settling in ... and Major League Baseball enjoyed more parity than ever before, with nine teams winning the 10 World Series ... and none for the Yankees, who in fact didn't win a single World Series between 1978 and 1996. In that span, baseball's four biggest markets -- New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, and the Bay Area -- accounted for exactly four of 16 championships, as the Dodgers won in 1981 and '88, the Mets in '86, and the A's in '89.

But beginning in the early '90s, the financial picture really did begin to seem terribly out of whack. This was, of course, due to the rise of the regional sports networks (RSN's), which helped jack up the local revenues in a significantly larger way than ticket sales ever had. I promise that you can find, without a lot of trouble, columns in the newspapers predicting doom for Major League Baseball. Ultimately, small-market franchises would simply disappear, leaving a sort of Super League for the big-market clubs.

Hey, anything's possible. The only thing we know for sure about the future is that it won't look exactly like the present (except for Future Bob Costas). But when the Yankees won three straight World Series, beginning in 1998, it just sort of became the Conventional Wisdom that the Yankees would keep winning the World Series, or at least come really close, every year.

But of course they didn't. And when you run the numbers, you can make a case that Major League Baseball has, for the last couple of decades, enjoyed as much or more parity than any of the other big American sports leagues. Which doesn't mean the next couple of decades will go just as well. But these things do have a way of self-correcting. Some of the teams with huge TV money will spend it wisely, and contend for championships almost every year. But some won't, which will leave room for teams with less money, but who spend what they do have very wisely, to nose in there for a year or two or three at a time. And if things really do get bad, with the same teams winning every year, the Lords of Baseball will step in and do something about it.

We need to watch them, and maybe even worry a little bit. But that sound you hear? It's a whole bunch of agents calling Mercedes dealerships. It's not the sky falling.

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