Concerned fans want to know: Is Theo a communist?
For a sports culture endowed with so many over-analyzing media outlets, issues of team ownership and the business of sports don’t receive their necessary attention. That changed for a couple of minutes during a recent interview with former Sox GM Theo Epstein, and the exchange should neither be ignored, nor oversimplified.
At around the 10-minute mark of his interview on WEEI Sports Radio’s “Dennis and Callahan Show” (that would be dyed-in-the-wool-conservative Gerry Callahan), current Chicago Cubs President of Baseball Operations and former Red Sox General Manager Theo Epstein addressed the dichotomy between winning, and making money that often exists in professional sports, even going so far as to “blame that on capitalism,” and to envision another method of operating baseball teams via municipalities, where the emphasis is on winning, and being a treasured aspect of a community, as opposed to making money.
You can listen to the full interview at this link, or on the video below. Highlights of the interview are transcribed below:
John Dennis: “Theo, I’m wondering what specific form those pressures manifested themselves in your realm, in your world? Was there a mandate, either clearly stated, or subtly veiled, that said, Hey, NESN ratings are down, interest is waning a bit, we need to make a splash [emphasis his] in the free agent market to gain the attention and the love and respect and admiration and faith of our fans?”
Theo Epstein: “I’m not going to scandalize it. I’m not going to get into specifics. There are no villains. There’s just people doing their jobs. The reality of a big business … There are lots of barometers for a baseball organization. Wins and losses. And it’s also a business. So yeah, ratings is an important barometer, revenues, tickets sold, sell outs, all that stuff. And there’s a big part of the business that has to measure itself. And you have to maintain where you’re at, and you have to continue to grow. Blame that – I blame that on capitalism, personally. It’s part of the nature of a baseball team being a business.”
Gerry Callahan (in the background): “Oh…”
Epstein continues: “Maybe one day we’ll all be owned by municipalities or something, and we won’t have to turn a profit, we won’t have to be a business. But that’s the reality of it. There were no villains, it’s just a natural dynamic that occurs in every sports organization.”
Watch this at WEEI.
It would be too easy to view this exchange in the political bumper sticker lexicon of communism vs. capitalism, especially when the insight offered by Epstein highlights an essential truth about the business of professional sports that fans would rather not consider: the financial success of owners, and the competitive success of teams, don’t always go together.
Consider, for example, the baseball operations documents for the Pittsburgh Pirates, Florida Marlins, and Tampa Bay Rays that were obtained and released by Deadspin.com two summers ago. All three are considered “small market” teams and work with a small payroll, which usually corresponds to bad baseball team on the field. (The Rays are one of the few small market teams capable of consistently playing competitive baseball. The Pirates seem to get worse by the year. And the Marlins have flashes of brilliance interspersed with consistent mediocrity, and recently received a brand-new tax-funded multi-million-dollar stadium.)
“If there is a thread running through all of these financial statements,” the Deadspin post reads, “it is the incredible ability of baseball teams — whether they're winners or losers, big market or small, "rich" or "poor" — to make their owners a fat pile of money.
(For an in-depth examination of these documents, check out Maury Brown’s excellent post from the Business Network.)
The fact that big-time professional sports teams are big-time businesses is not news. But if owners are capable of turning a profit regardless of how successful their team is, then what does the future hold for an institution built on the timeless tenets of competition that is run according to the finances of the next quarter’s get-rich(er)-quick(er) scheme?
Maybe Theo is right. Maybe municipalities and other forms of ownership deserve honest consideration.
Our sports culture certainly has the media capacity to consider such questions.