Don't break up the Yankees, break up their market

April 23, 2004|By Steve Chapman

CHICAGO - As befits a place that calls itself the Garden State, New Jersey has plenty of broad, green fields perfect for all sorts of frolicking. It also has room for at least one more - which the state would happily create to suit any Major League Baseball team that would like to relocate. "Ladies and gentlemen, your New Jersey Expos!"

It may not surprise you to learn that the New York Yankees have no interest in moving to the Meadowlands. George Steinbrenner doesn't want anyone else to accept the invitation, either. A Yankees official said, "We will vigorously object and exercise all our rights if any attempts are made to put any major-league team there."

He's right that installing another team in his vicinity would be bad for the Yankees. Which is exactly why it would be good for the game. In recent years, it's become clear that Major League Baseball, which currently has a National League and an American League, will soon be divided into two different leagues: the Yankees and everyone else.

The reason is money, which Mr. Steinbrenner sprays like a firefighter attacking a three-alarm blaze. Last year, the Bronx Bombers had a player payroll of $180 million. That's more than the combined spending of the Kansas City Royals, Milwaukee Brewers, Montreal Expos and Tampa Bay Devil Rays. It's 55 percent more than the next most profligate club, the New York Mets. It's $100 million more than the league average.

And they could spend more: Their annual revenue has been estimated at $330 million. Baseball has tried to attack the problem with revenue sharing and luxury taxes, but so far they've made no perceptible difference.

All this spending doesn't guarantee success. The sad truth is that the Yankees have won only four of the last 10 World Series, the last of which was way back in 2000. And they are not atop the American League East at the moment.

But lack of spending pretty well guarantees failure. The Royals haven't been to a World Series since 1985, and the Brewers have been absent since 1982. The Expos, created in 1969, have never won a pennant. The Devil Rays, whose payroll is 17 percent of the Yankees', have finished last every year since they arrived as an American League expansion team in 1998.

It took a study by professors Frederick Wiseman and Sangit Chatterjee of Northeastern University to prove the obvious: You get what you pay for. From 1998 through 2002, they found, teams in the upper quarter in payroll won an average of 15 games a year more than clubs in the bottom quarter.

The reason the Yankees and Mets can outspend everyone else may seem obvious and immutable: They operate in New York, which is the nation's biggest market. But a large population does not ensure outsized profits. Hardware stores don't necessarily make more money in Brooklyn than in Biloxi.

The real explanation for the disparity is that the Yankees and Mets enjoy a shared monopoly on that enormous, well-heeled market. They divide the 21 million people of the greater New York City area between themselves.

Greater Kansas City, by contrast, contains just 1.8 million souls. If a couple of million people can support a major-league team in Missouri, they can do it anywhere - which means the New York-New Jersey-Connecticut region could easily absorb another team or two.

That would make it easier for fans who reside far from Yankee Stadium or Shea Stadium to attend a game. It would improve the prospects of some small-market also-ran. It would drain revenues from those overendowed teams now in New York.

No club has migrated since the Washington Senators fled to Texas in 1971. If the Yankees have their way, none will move to New Jersey in this century, and the rule says any franchise can block a team from moving within 75 miles of its ballpark. But it would take only 22 of the league's 29 owners to force the change, regardless of what the Yankees or Mets want.

For fans in the hinterlands, the idea of giving another team to the New York area, which has long dominated the sport, may not sound innately appealing. They should remember what Europeans used to say about the prospect of German reunification: We love Germany so much we want two of them.

Steve Chapman is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper. His column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun.

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