Don't swing at Washington's bad pitch

September 01, 2004|By Raymond Daniel Burke

WHEN THE Washington Senators left for Minnesota after 60 years in the American League, it was decided that the nation's capital needed an immediate replacement.

The American League was expanding for the first time in 1961, intent on adding a new team in Southern California following the earlier West Coast migrations of the National League's Dodgers and Giants. Since expansion must be undertaken by twos, the second team was placed in Washington. That version of the Senators had one winning season in 11 and left to become the Texas Rangers in 1972.

Washington remains without big-league baseball but now has its sights set on the Montreal Expos. So woefully supported that they have been taken over and operated by Major League Baseball itself, and forced to play a portion of their home schedule in Puerto Rico, the Expos are in dire need of a new home. Elimination of the Expos would require that a second team also be eliminated (Tampa Bay comes to mind) and the leagues realigned.

Debate over relocating the Expos to the Washington area has focused on the impact on attendance at Orioles games and, ultimately, the economic vitality of the local franchise. One side sees horrible financial consequences from the proximity of another team; the other sees it as a competitive opportunity.

Putting a major-league team in or near Washington would draw fans who might otherwise support the Orioles. And the Orioles' six consecutive losing seasons make the novelty of a new team and new league all the more potentially attractive to Washington-area fans.

The argument that the region readily supports two National Football League teams is entirely inapposite. Football's annual ration of eight mostly sold-out and very high-priced home games is not comparable to the 81-game baseball home season, with its midweek games, bargain nights and meaningless match-ups involving teams long out of contention.

Moreover, the assertion that a Washington-area team would make the Orioles better because they would work harder to be more competitive is wholly unpersuasive. They already compete in a division with the financial powerhouses of New York and Boston and clearly know their loyal fans are becoming more frustrated with each failed season. How much more motivation do they need?

A Washington-area team would have another serious impact, which stems from the fundamental failure of Major League Baseball to recognize the value of competitive balance. Indeed, baseball preserves a system that affirmatively fosters the dominance of large-market teams and their ability to supplement ticket sales with media revenue.

While the NFL has long recognized the benefits of giving every team a chance nearly every year by pooling resources, baseball clings to its system of feudal kingdoms in which everyone is on his own in the search for media dollars. This places teams in media-rich centers at a profound advantage in supplementing ticket income with TV, cable, radio and advertising revenues. The division between the media haves and have-nots has become all the more distinct as forms and outlets for media have expanded.

A team in Washington would divide the region's media dollars, putting both the Orioles and the new team at an undeniable competitive disadvantage.

This flaw is exacerbated by baseball's failure to adopt a meaningful salary cap system in the age of free agency. The ability to spend without limits, other than an unobtrusive tax on excessively high payrolls, further fuels the disparity created by the unbalanced media revenue situation. Teams enriched by their fortunate media markets spend more on player salaries and then get richer still and spend still more on payroll. Favorably located teams are able to simply outspend the market at will.

A large payroll does not ensure success on the field, but it doesn't hurt, either. And a roster full of established stars is good for the box office as well as wins. There are certainly small-market teams, such as the Minnesota Twins, that have continued to be successful through the savvy development of young players. But they cannot be expected to continually be competitive in a grossly unbalanced market.

Indeed, while the Oakland A's, who share a market with the San Francisco Giants, have been a model of modest payroll success, they have routinely lost their most popular stars to free agency - a situation that makes continued success more difficult and undermines fan loyalty.

So if it is determined that the Washington area is the best available venue for the relocated Expos, and the Orioles are damaged as a result, it will only be part of the larger harm caused by a sport that so consistently mismanages its beautiful product.

Raymond Daniel Burke is a partner in a Baltimore law firm.

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