In an ideal world, the relationship between a fan and the owner(s) of their favorite sports team is both mutually beneficial and nearly invisible. It’s clearly there, but not something one really wants to be in the consciousness very often, if at all. For our part of this, we get a (hopefully) competitive and entertaining team to watch and for whom we can root for a long time. For their part, they get a massively profitable business whose growth is exponential and there is near-guaranteed and unfathomable amounts of money to be made in the future whenever they decide to sell. In a strictly financial sense, the benefits clearly skew towards one side on this occasion, but that is to be expected. The whole way this works is that, as long as the collective we get a team we enjoy watching, we can ignore the rest. Whether or not that is good or right or beneficial to society is a different discussion for a different platform, but it is the way this relationship was built to work.
The ideal world for Red Sox fans cracked a little bit this past weekend during and after a press conference held by John Henry, Tom Werner and Sam Kennedy, the faces of the Red Sox ownership group. In this discussion about firing Dave Dombrowski and the future of the team — a discussion that, it should be mentioned, came about three weeks later than it should have — they made clear without actually saying it that putting out a competitive team, at least in the short-term, is not the priority. Sure, they said they “intended” to field a competitive team next year, but what does that mean? I “intend” to go to the gym every morning. Believe it or not, it doesn’t actually happen, and I’m well aware of it whether my intention is there or not.
I mean, if we’re being honest, it’s absurd that the Boston Red Sox — and especially this version of the Boston Red Sox with a young offensive core, four straight winning seasons and still the reigning champions for another month — even feel compelled to say this at all. That’s the whole damn point of this, isn’t it? I intend to wake up every day. I intend to eat every day. These are givens, which is why I don’t declare this intention. The intention for the Red Sox fielding a competitive team shouldn’t even need to be said, but that’s where we are right now.
The reason this even came up, of course, is that in this press conference the owners also mentioned their goal of getting under the $208 mark for their payroll next year. That is, for those who don’t know, the luxury tax threshold for the 2020 season. Teams who go over the threshold pay a tax on every dollar they spend over it, and that tax increases with each consecutive year you find yourself on the “wrong” side of that line. So, the Red Sox want to reset their penalties, as the Dodgers and Yankees have also done in recent years.
There’s a lot to yell about here. There’s the fact that, while this sounds great in a vacuum for the people paying the checks, the on-field ramifications are huge. Alex Speier details here just how difficult it will be to clear this mark. There’s the implication that I should be concerned about a billion dollar organization whose owners, even if you want to ignore present earnings, are set to make obscene amounts of money whenever they decide to sell, having to pay a modest tax. Remember that last year, when Boston exceeded the highest threshold of the tax, they owed just under $12 million in taxes. That’s the salary of a modest closer on the open market. There’s the elephant in the room that, even ignoring the other issues, this might all not matter! The Collective Bargaining Agreement is set to expire after the 2021 season, and we have no idea what the luxury tax model will look like in the very near future.
More broadly than all of that, though, is what this press conference as well as Sam Kennedy’s comments on Monday says about the state of baseball and the sports world as a whole. To put it simply, executives are more comfortable than ever saying the quiet part loud. We are just expected to nod along with their plans to cut payroll so they don’t have to pay a tax they supported in the first place so it can act as a de facto cap on the sport. We are supposed to be okay with them openly touting this as a business first and an entertainment product second. We are expected to let them have things both ways, treating them like an everyday private business when it suits them while also giving teams all around the sports world public subsidies and baseball teams in particular and antitrust exemption.
It’s bad enough that the owners of one of the richest and most iconic teams in American sports, in a sport without a real salary cap, wants to cut their payroll by a significant margin while they possess one of the most exciting offensive cores in the game. It’s even worse than they feel comfortable saying this out loud, because this is just how things work now. It’s even worse, that on Monday, just days after the team expressed their goal of significantly slashing their payroll, Kennedy indicated that prices at Fenway were likely to see a modest increase. It’s a free market, people will say, which is true. Except, of course, in the business of actually building a team.
Believing owning a sports team is anything other than a ruthless money-making venture for any of these owners is and probably always has been naive idealism. Not too long ago, though, we could live in that ideal world as everyone just accepted to keep the charade up for the good of everyone. The curtain has been pulled, though, and now we have to live in a world where we consider John Henry’s profit margins. I love rooting rooting for the Red Sox and I love following sports in general. I don’t love how much the business side of all of this is becoming part of the equation.