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Artificial Scarcity Is Baseball’s Present, And Our Future

An image of Rob Manfred, blessedly altered to obscure his face.
Image by Patrick Dubuque

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This story was originally published at Baseball Prospectus on January 24.

I’ve had something on my mind for a long while that isn’t entirely about baseball but that baseball certainly encompasses to a large degree. It’s been hard to avoid with NFTs and the cryptoplatforms on which they exist dominating every headline, permeating every area of society, though especially with sports. Whether it’s your favorite athlete vapidly asking “what do you all think about NFTs??” or Reese Witherspoon asking how you’re going to prepare for life in the metaverse or the naming rights to the Lakers’ stadium getting auctioned off to crypto.com, we are incessantly confronted with one of the most blatant cash grabs in some time. 

It’s not that there’s anything new under the sun with all of this stuff; it’s more about how unabashed it all is. While there are surely some true believers involved, it’s hard not to see NFTs and their ilk as much more than a more modernized pyramid or ponzi scheme, where it’s all a game of reverse musical chairs to see who will be left holding the bag at the end. Even ignoring the environmental toll from cryptomining, we all lose when we allow things like this to operate so brazenly in front of us. It’s little more than an obvious and desperate scam—and money laundering function—with lip service paid to notions like decentralization.

It doesn’t have to be NFTs and their artificial scarcity, though; you can pick almost any subject matter out there and find someone taking something and making it worse, adding friction, or threatening its existence to make a buck. Baseball’s version was crystallized for me in this quote from Rays owner Stu Sternberg, who finally had the kibosh put on his “sister city” plan between Montreal and Tampa Bay—the idea being that the team would spend parts of a given season playing in each locale, and be given new stadiums for their trouble.  

It’s a mind-numbingly cynical and shitty concept, which might be why it feels destined to come true. Nothing can stop a bad idea when it’s profitable. This one is terrible not only because it would make things worse for the people who actually make the game happen—the players, and the seasonal-within-a-season stadium employees—but also for fans who lose out on a whole swath of baseball games. All of that in the service of artificially limiting inventory in both places, driving up prices both through the decrease in availability, and in threatening an emotional and cultural lodestar for these communities.

Sternberg might not be wrong that intentionally making things worse for everyone in the pursuit of ever-increasing profits is the wave of the future—just as it is the wave of the present and the past—but one has to wonder why he wants to lead that charge. Okay, no one has to wonder, it’s the profits.

The drive for profits has essentially always been 10% creating something people love and 90% ruining that thing they love, just a little bit, for money. That’s what ads and sponsorships are. They’re an interruption, a burden. But the money that comes in from the ads, in theory, helps the entire ecosystem keep going. It helps the people who dedicate their time to performing (whether a show or sport) be compensated better. It opens the door, to some degree, for more of the thing we love, because the thing we love becomes sustainable for more of the people involved in making it happen. That’s all well and good, at least in theory.

But what Sternberg describes above isn’t some circuitous path that ends up with a more stable product or production crew. It’s not part of the ascent toward a peak. It’s quite the opposite. It is the dismantling of something that is already in place, something profitable, and successful. It’s Edward Lewis from Pretty Woman, buying businesses to break them apart and sell them because they’re more valuable separately than they are together. It doesn’t seem to matter that the Rays (or some future franchise) are actually financially viable and successful, despite meager attendance. It doesn’t seem to matter that their ratings on television are quite good—good enough to secure them a major long-term contract with lots of guaranteed dollars, or that the revenue sharing within the league means they’re doing quite well for themselves overall. Because the possibility of more exists, and if it means stiffing fans in the process, well that’s just business. Sternberg has seen the future of franchise ownership, and it’s not building great big ships together, no sir.

Which brings us back to the specific people who sit atop the spot, who are as we speak seeking to make life worse for everyone but themselves: the owners. Yes, Stuart Sternberg, but the 29 other versions of him, as well. Per The Athletic’s Evan Drellich, the owners are not planning to offer any meaningful concessions in their bargaining sessions with players, preferring instead to test their unity as we creep ever closer to missing games. This bad-faith attempt is not a surprise to anyone who has taken notice of how the owners behaved in the 2020 negotiations, nor in the run up to the lockout they immediately instituted under the guise of expediting negotiations. Never mind that they proceeded to piss away six weeks before making a proposal that incorporated anything touching core economics. This is all to plan. They don’t want to negotiate substantively. They don’t want to enhance the long-term position of the game. They don’t want to compensate players more fairly. They want to press their advantage. 

And they want to press it whether it alienates their audience or not. Sportswriters have taken to the idea that the worst outcome of all of this non-negotiating would be missed games. That it would be an affront to fans if an agreement were not reached. But the real affront to fans is the casual contempt ownership seems to have for them. That they are actively seeking to imperil the thing the fans come to see just to test the Players Association’s unity. That the fans are mere collateral when the owners already hold the upper hand, after successfully winning the prior two CBAs. Their plum position irrelevant, when just over there, there’s a sister city, there’s more.

Folks will talk about walking away from the game due to a work stoppage, or because they’re tired of getting taken. They’ll point to 1994-95 and the deterioration of a relationship, but they’ll rarely talk about 1996, or 1998, or 2018 in the same breath. The exponential profits and revenue streams that the league has enjoyed precisely because relatively few actually did turn their back for good. We know that missed games aren’t the death knell they’re made out to be, and we know that people not only came back, they did so with open wallets. Ownership knows that they can inflict any number of damaging propositions on the game and its fans, without consequence to their bottom line—and often with a benefit. A two-city proposition might seem outlandish now, but the more you look around at the current landscape of sports, and elsewhere, it’s surprisingly easy to feel the icy grip of inevitability taking hold.

Besides, as Sternberg and the people who draw ugly apes both know, the future is artificial scarcity. If you take something away from people, the logic goes, they’re just going to miss it more. And they’ll pay for it, which is all that matters.