By Gerald W. Scully
Major league sports, as every reader of the sports pages knows, is a major league business. As a result, economics has a lot to say about how players, teams, and leagues will act under different circumstances. But would you believe that economics can be used to predict which teams will win and which will lose? It can.
How good a professional sports team is depends, of course, on the quality of its players. Because teams compete for better players by offering higher salaries, the quality of a team depends largely on how strong it is financially. The financially stronger teams will, on average, be the better teams. And they will also, on average, be the ones in bigger cities, because more revenues can be made in bigger cities. In baseball, equivalent win records in New York, Los Angeles, or Chicago yield three times the revenue as in Kansas City, Milwaukee, or Pittsburgh. That is why professional sports teams in cities with large populations tend to have records above .500, while teams in cities with small populations tend to have records below .500.
Exceptions to the rule that financially stronger teams are better are some small-market teams, such as Oakland and Montreal, that, for certain periods of time, develop high-quality players in their farm-team system. These “diamonds in the rough” are better than the market. Such a strategy can produce relatively competitive teams in a small market while keeping player salaries relatively low. Of course, the exception proves the rule. Once these players win substantial salary increases through arbitration or become free agents, big-market teams often hire them away.
It is easy to see why large-market teams do better in the era of free agents, when a star player can move to whichever team will pay him the most. But, as I will explain below, this differential between large- and small-city teams also existed when teams “owned” player contracts and players were not free to accept a higher offer.
One factor that matters for team revenues and for competitive balance is the league’s rule for dividing the gate receipts. In basketball and hockey, the home team gets all of the gate receipts and the visitor gets nothing. The gate division is 85:15 in baseball and 60:40 in football. When the home team gets to keep more of the gate receipts, the teams in bigger cities get more of the benefit from their inherent financial advantage. When the split is more equal, the financial advantage of being in a bigger market is less. Partly for this reason, financial disparity is least in the National Football Leaque (NFL).
But in all sports, revenues from national television contracts have grown as a percentage of total revenues, and TV revenues are divided equally among the clubs. As a result, the differences in the financial strength of teams have narrowed. Big-city domination, though not completely eliminated, has diminished.
By their very nature, sports leagues are cartels that exclude competition from other companies. You cannot start a baseball team and hope to play the Yankees unless you can get Major League Baseball (the cartel) to grant you a franchise. The antitrust laws prohibit cartels, but professional sports is the only private business in the United States that is largely exempt from those laws. Ever since a 1922 court decision (Federal Baseball Club of Baltimore v. National League et al.), baseball has been totally exempt. No other sport enjoys such a blanket exemption from antitrust, but all professional team sports have a labor exemption and, since the Sports Television Act of 1961, a broadcast exemption.
All of the leagues have collusive agreements that govern the selection, contractual arrangements, and distribution of players among the teams. Collectively, these agreements grant a degree of monopsony power (monopoly power over the right to buy something—in this case, player services) to owners. The owners exploit this power by paying the players less than their incremental contribution to revenue.
Athletes enter most professional team sports through a drafting procedure. The common feature of the drafts is that they grant one team exclusive bargaining rights with each prospective player. Once drafted, the athlete negotiates with that team alone, and others cannot offer higher salaries to get him. In some instances, signing bonuses for draft choices are very high. Such instances are relatively rare and depend on the quality of the player and the labor-market structure of the sport. In baseball, where drafted players usually are assigned to the minor leagues, face relatively long careers on average, are not constrained by a salary cap, and are paid their salaries for the length of their contracts—which can be for several years—large signing bonuses for amateurs are rare. In football, where players face a salary cap, careers are short—less than three years, on average—and salary is not guaranteed if the player fails to make the team or is injured during the season, signing bonuses can be high for impact players. The rules affecting the amateur draft have been weakened somewhat over the years, but competitive bidding for beginning players remains impeded. Once the player has come to terms with the drafting team, he must sign a uniform player’s contract that allows him to sell his services only to the team holding the contract. Although player contracts vary from sport to sport, all contain some basic prohibitions against player-initiated moves to other teams. That is, owners are free to “trade” (sell) players to other teams, but players are not totally free to offer their services to competing teams.
Owners claim that restrictions on player movement are necessary to maintain competitive balance and prevent financial powerhouses such as the old Yankees from buying up all the best talent and completely dominating the sport. That, owners say, would make the sport duller for fans and hurt everyone. Economists have always been skeptical about the owners’ motives—and about the evidence. There never was any disagreement over the fact that star players would wind up on big-city teams. But economists believe that this would happen regardless of whether or not leagues restrict moves initiated by players. If players were free to move between teams, then, assuming they were indifferent about location, they would play for the team that pays the most. The team that pays the most is the one that expects the largest increment in revenue from that player’s performance. Since an increment in the win-loss record yields more revenue in, say, New York than in Kansas City, the best players go to New York rather than to Kansas City.
That point, which is made by those who justify restrictions on mobility, is correct. But limiting the ability of players to initiate moves should not have any effect on where players end up playing. When players are not free to move, does a small-city team that acquired a star player in the draft keep him? For a small-city franchise, the team holding the player’s contract expects him to contribute, say, one million dollars in incremental revenue to the club. In a large city, that same player’s talents might contribute three million dollars. Because the player is worth more to the big-city team in either case (and the big-city team will pay more for him), the small-city franchise has an incentive to sell the player’s contract to the big-city team, and thereby make more money than it could by keeping him. Thus, players should wind up allocated by highest incremental revenue, with or without restrictions on player-initiated movement.
The evidence supports that conclusion. Since the advent of free agency, which made it easier for players to jump from one team to another, the total movement of players (trades, sales, minor league transfers) has been about the same as it was before. So, although restrictions on player-initiated movement should not affect the allocation of player talent within a league, they substantially affect the division of income between owners and players. Under free agency, the players earn what they contribute to incremental revenue; under league restrictions on player-initiated transfers, the owners keep more of the revenues. The dramatic rise in player salaries since the mid-1970s, notably in baseball and basketball, is largely the result of the relaxation of restrictions on player-initiated transfers.
The most important antitrust issue in sports today relates to the formation of new leagues. The collusive arrangement in the allocation of broadcast rights between the television networks and the existing leagues constitutes a formidable barrier to entry for a new league. In particular, football programming is very valuable because football games attract large audiences. Large audiences mean high advertising revenues and, therefore, large network television revenues to the NFL. By allocating games to several networks instead of just one, the NFL has become a partner with the networks in the broadcast enterprise. Further, the contract stipulates that the networks cannot broadcast another professional football league’s games within forty-eight hours of an NFL game. This relegates any competing league’s games to midweek, which is hardly attractive to the networks.
Television, by building fan recognition and loyalty, builds attendance and gate receipts. Thus, a competing league may not be able to exist without access to television. The NFL has an exclusive, multiyear contract with the networks that is a barrier to entry for a competing league. Only when the network-NFL contract expires is there the possibility of a point of entry. But for that to happen, the networks would have to consider a new league’s games suitable substitutes for NFL games. Because teams in new leagues are inferior to established teams (the established teams already have the best stars), the networks have little incentive to make such a substitution. Partly because of the broadcast exemption to antitrust law, and partly because of the judicious expansion of the leagues in all of the professional team sports, fans are unlikely to see competing sports leagues arise.
Some seventy-three million fans attended major league baseball games in 2004, and fan interest remains high in other professional team sports. The explosion of new sport facilities since 1990 has contributed to increased attendance. These expensive facilities, usually financed by taxpayers, are leased to the teams at relatively low prices. These implicit annual subsidies to teams are about ten million dollars or so per team, and a new facility adds twenty million or more to a team’s revenue. These added revenues and subsidies add to a franchise’s value.
Economists have found that the benefits from the government subsidies, such as increased employment, expanded consumer leisure spending, economic development, or other economic effects, are a fraction of the subsidies. Proponents of public spending on sports facilities claim that income generated in the community is ten dollars for every one dollar spent by the team’s fans. Economists are skeptical that the impact is more than twice that of club revenues. Many other public projects rank well above sport facilities in generating benefits for a given subsidy. But politicians and bureaucrats are in a poor bargaining position relative to the monopoly leagues. These leagues keep one or more sites open and threaten to relocate or deny expansion to the locality that will not build a new facility. Politicians want to provide popular projects that their constituents favor, and a sports team is considered part of the local culture and quality of life. Often, special bond elections are held to approve public spending for sport facilities. Such elections seldom draw voter turnouts of more than 10 percent. Relatively more fans turn out to vote than the general public. Moreover, these facilities often are financed by increased taxes on tourists. But one must also turn to psychological and sociological explanations for the popular support of sports monopolies.
One important area of economic activity that this article leaves out is that of amateur sports. The economic importance of amateur sports, measured by the value of time and other resources spent by participants and fans, is comparable in order of magnitude to the importance of professional sports.