A Major-League Team Is Not A Business

Photo credit: Joe Skipper/AP
Photo credit: Joe Skipper/AP

You don’t need any insight into the inner workings of the Miami Marlins to understand why the franchise is currently in the midst of stripping itself of every decent player making even a modest salary. The team was just purchased by a bunch of people who couldn’t really afford it, and now they need to cut down on expenses in order to get out of debt. This is obvious, but the pure cynicism of the new ownership group’s stewardship is thrown into even starker relief by scoops like this one, from the Miami Herald:

According to an August version of Project Wolverine - a document pitching potential investors on joining the Marlins ownership group and shared with the Miami Herald by sources - Jeter will make an annual bonus based on the Marlins being profitable.

That bonus would pay him $2 million in 2018, $1.7 million in 2019, $1.1 million in 2020, $2 million in 2021 and $2 million in 2022. The Marlins declined to say if the amount of those bonus payments were altered in subsequent versions of Wolverine.


Here you have a professional baseball team’s head decision-maker, whose ostensible job is to do everything he can to put a competitive team on the field and win a championship—and that is the job; baseball’s being in theory more a form of entertainment than a profit-making business (it’s both, of course) is the reason why teams enjoy so many advantages that make it easy to turn a profit, including an antitrust exemption—having his bonus tied not to performance, but to profitability. And this is being pitched to investors as a reason why their money is in safe hands. Don’t worry, the Marlins are saying to those people. Your money comes first. 

This is essentially the behavior of a private equity firm going after distressed assets. In such cases, the firm will call in a chunk of its investors’ money in order to buy a struggling asset, immediately strip away all expenses from the asset, and then sell it off for a profit once its value has been properly inflated.

The difference here (aside from the fact that the best way to inflate the value of a baseball team is probably for it to win a lot) is that the Miami Marlins are not an office building struggling to lease all of its spaces, or an energy company having a hard time staying out of the red. They are a major-league baseball team, and exist not principally for the sake of recouping a profit for investors, but for—and I know this sounds crazy—entertaining their fans, especially the ones in the Miami area who will end up paying billions for the Marlins’ ballpark.

Entertaining fans, building for long-term success, and turning short-term and long-term profits are all reasonable goals that are often at odds with each other, even more so in smaller markets. The compact between rich people who buy teams and the public implicitly recognizes that the first two are supposed to take precedence. We’re long past pretending that this is always the case, or that the majority of American sports owners are willing to put their obligations to the public ahead of their margins, but there is something uniquely depressing about seeing a brand-new ownership group—one with a well-respected baseball legend whose name is synonymous with Winning and Playing The Game With Integrity as its face—seemingly swooping in to save one of baseball’s most historically abused franchises from its shitbag, profit-obsessed owner, and then immediately dispensing with all pretense of actually giving a shit about baseball.