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The publicly funded Pirates are crying cheap, and it’s bullshit

Pittsburgh Pirates owner Bob Nutting points at something before a game PNC Park.
Pittsburgh Pirates owner Bob Nutting

Rampant socioeconomic inequality is one of the key causes of piracy. It is not, however, the cause of Pittsburgh Pirates owner Bob Nutting being a cheapskate. In 2019, the Pirates spent $72 million on their Major League roster. This puts Pittsburgh in the league’s bottom three, with only the Rays and the Marlins beneath them. It is, as they say in the business, a pretty kettle of fish.

According to Nutting, who just ditched general manager Neal Huntingdon, the team’s low payroll (they’re about $150 million behind the MLB-leading Red Sox) is entirely justified and we should stop asking questions about it (emphasis below is mine):

I really believe that the fundamental narrative about the economics of the Pittsburgh Pirates and the economics of baseball have been misunderstood. The narrative is not accurate. We need to do a better job explaining and telling the story of the uneven playing field in Major League Baseball. Since we have consistently said, and I believe, we will never use the economic system as an excuse because that would immediately be defeatist. We’re not going to do that. However, we have to be realistic and communicate more clearly and more directly what those economic challenges that we face are. The idea that we are hoarding cash as a team is simply not accurate. We will find a more compelling and complete way to make sure that that is an issue that simply is not on the table. It is an unnecessary drag, and it’s not an accurate narrative.

Nobody disputes that the Red Sox make more money than the Pirates. But MLB has for years been working to ensure that the gargantuan profits rolling into the league are being distributed to all their teams rather than concentrated in the hands of a few, which would be bad for the league’s long-term health.

According to Baseball-Reference, the greatest website on the internet (sorry, Clickhole), in 2018 MLB’s revenue sharing gave each team $118 million from combined local sources and an estimated $91 million from the national pot, and using the CBA’s 48 percent figure (XXIV.B.1) against Forbes’ estimate of $7.3B local revenue across MLB, we get similar numbers for 2019.

The straightforward narrative of cheapness might be ‘misunderstood’, but it’s difficult to see how the opposite narrative might be true. The Pirates, who play in a stadium financed by public money, not being able to make money off $200 million-plus in revenue sharing while only spending $72 million on their major league roster seems to be an intractable mathematical problem.

Perhaps, however, we can do as Nutting asks and come up with a new, better narrative. Let’s have a think.

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Hmmm.

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Hmmmmmmmmm ...

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Right. I think I’ve got it. My new narrative: Sports teams shouldn’t exist to enrich individual owners. They are a shared trust with their communities and while, obviously, they cannot simply spend themselves into oblivion, they have (or should have) a responsibility to their fans to do their utmost to win in both the short and long term every season.

In the real world, however, owners have a responsibility to a) keep the rest of the league moderately happy and b) do whatever the hell they want, which mostly seems to involve making money. While individual ownership does not have to lead to profit-gouging — benevolent owners do exist — it creates the conditions by which that gouging becomes probable.

Sports teams, especially ones who benefit from local taxes, should be responsible to fans and players, not just leagues and owners. If the Pirates can’t behave, municipalize them. How’s that for the new narrative?