May 6, 2010

Sports Illustrated's Indefensible Pirates Hatchet Job

An unfortunate consequence of being a columnist is the recurring deadline. If you have a 750 word piece due Thursday, you damn well better write 750 words whether you have something to say or not. Everyone is guilty it - I once wrote an editorial for seven newspapers taking the position that it was almost winter, it was about to get cold and that was going to suck. At least that position was defensible, unlike Paul Daugherty's piece for Sports Illustrated online, advocating breaking up the Pirates.

I wasn't even going to respond to this editorial since I don't think it was really intended to be serious. Unfortunately it has generated continuing talk on Pittsburgh sports radio. As the old maxim goes, if it's being discussed on Pittsburgh radio, it must be compelling. Basically Daugherty's argument is that Pittsburgh doesn't deserve to have a team and its players should be distributed to other teams. The stated reasons are that the Pirates are bad, their payroll is low, and they only draw fans by having promotions.

First of all it's hard to take someone's views on the Pirates seriously when he can't correctly spell their best player's name. McCutcheon, really? Setting that aside...

Eliminating one team is unrealistic.
The reason why Daugherty doesn't say how his proposal would work logistically is that it wouldn't. Major League Baseball cannot unilaterally change a collectively bargained labor agreement by getting rid of one team, thus cutting 25 jobs. There are also contracts with television networks, Minor League Baseball, apparel manufacturers, and others which depend on the existence of 30 teams. All those companies would rightfully sue if Major League Baseball contracted a team.

Even if all those disagreements can be settled, what would the schedule look like with 29 teams? Except on Monday and Thursday, all 30 teams are in action every day throughout the season. With an odd number of teams at least one team would have to be off every day. But with a schedule consisting primarily of three-game series, teams would have to take turns having three days off in a row. Imagine a team in a pennant race, finishing their season on the final Thursday and then sitting around for three days to see what happens with the rest of their dvision. It wouldn't happen.

Pittsburgh is a Major League market.
It is typical of mid-tier markets like Pittsburgh that fans will attend games of teams who win. That's why four years ago you could buy Penguins tickets on the street for $10 and now you can't even get in the building. Pitt football is a more recent example. With so many losing seasons in a row, it's understandable that sports fans would choose to spend their money on the Steelers, Penguins and Pitt Panthers. Only in large cities like Chicago and New York can a team get away with losing and still sell out games. The Pirates aren't helped by an alignment that gives them no natural rivals in their division.

The Cleveland Indians, one of the Pirates' closest parallels in baseball, provide a good example. They're last in attendance this year. Yet when the Tribe was an offensive juggernaut from 1994-2001, they sold out a then-record 455 consecutive games. This despite playing in a city that has one of the worst economies in the country and has cold weather for about a third of the home games in any given year.

Even after 17 losing seasons it only takes a few wins in a row to generate buzz in the city. Certainly if the Pirates had a playoff team or even a contender, PNC Park would be full every night. Pirates fandom stretches from Erie down to West Virginia and western Maryland, and from eastern Ohio all the way to the Susquehanna River. These far-flung fans are willing to come to town to see a competitive team.

The Florida teams would be well ahead of the Pirates in line for elimination.
Fans pack Wrigley Field, win or lose, 81 games a year. The two Florida teams are the opposite. Check out their results:

Tampa Bay Rays
2008 - #3 record (97-65) / #26 in attendance (22,259)
2009 - #15 record (84-78) / #23 in attendance (23,147)
2010 - #1 record (20-7) / #20 in attendance (23,064)

Florida Marlins
2008 - #14 record (84-77) / #30 in attendance (16,688)
2009 - #10 record (87-75) / #29 in attendance (18,770)
2010 - #17 record (13-14) / #26 in attendance (17,727)

The Florida Marlins consistently post winning records, play in a market nearly twice the size of Pittsburgh, and are near the bottom in attendance every year. Tampa Bay - also a larger market than Pittsburgh - has the best record in baseball, is 18 months removed from a World Series appearance, has a large number of marquee home games against the Yankees and Red Sox, and nevertheless plays in a half empty stadium.

In 2008 the Rays drew a whopping 35,041 fans to the first playoff game in the history of their franchise. That's 4,000 more than came to the Pirates-Dodgers game this year on a Wednesday night in April. Seats were covered with tarps because the Rays knew they couldn't sell out a playoff game. Would any of that happen in Pittsburgh?

Daugherty misstates the economics of baseball.
The article points out that the Pirates spend less on their major league payroll than they receive in revenue sharing.and TV money. Daugherty then uses that to make the claim that Pirates ownership is getting rich at the expense of other teams.

What is the point of taking one expense of a business and comparing it to two of their three major revenue sources (the other being ticket sales)? That's like saying you earned more in salary and benefits than you paid in rent, so you must be rich. Daugherty fails to account for draft spending (the Pirates spend more than any MLB team), minor league spending (largely a fixed cost), Caribbean spending (the Pirates are near the top) and many other expenses. Additionally the Pirates at $24 million take in less ticket revenue than any team in baseball, and overall take in less revenue than every team other than the Marlins. It stands to reason that their MLB payroll would be near the bottom. No one would attempt to operate a business by spending more money but taking in less money than other companies in their industry.

Even after accounting for revenue sharing the Yankees take in $300 million a year more than the Pirates. The division rival Cubs take in $100 million more. But to find that out one would have to research what he was writing. Someone who actually did research found out that the teams whose payroll lags their revenues are actually Washington, Oakland, San Diego, Houston, Philadelphia and St. Louis.

All baseball teams have promotions.
The Pirates are "buying [fans] off with fireworks and bobbleheads," sniffs Daugherty. They "sell their product with fireworks - eight big shows this year! - and giveaways." What a revelation. Teams have been giving away stuff for 100 years. Daugherty's hometown Reds are giving away a tote bag, a team photo and a scarf this weekend; next weekend they have fireworks and two jersey giveaways. Is there anything wrong with that? Of course not, only a real curmudgeon would criticize a team for giving free stuff to fans. Not only that, but if the Pirates did give more away than other teams as Daugherty seems to think, wouldn't that undermine his argument about their owners not wanting to spend money?

One week does not a season make.
The impetus for this piece, of course, was the Pirates' miserable week which included a 20-0 loss. One would think that a seasoned baseball journalist would know this, but the baseball season is impossibly long. There's an ebb and flow to it. It breaks teams down and builds other teams up. It's a war of attrition. It requires constant roster moves and rest decisions. The '79 Pirates started 4-10 and won the World Series. No greater conclusions can be made from one game or one week. Getting rid of a 125 year old team based on one week of results is about the most absurd overreaction anyone could have.

Oh, but Daugherty knows this! Direct quote from his column in the Cincinnati paper: " 'Panicky' and 'April baseball'’ do not belong in the same language. They are ketchup and peanut butter. Panicky is for overwrought fans and overheated media." I guess writing panicky pieces for a national audience sets up a nice straw man to criticize in your local column? "The hardest part of following a baseball team – or playing for one - is taking the long view." It's apparently also the hardest part of writing about one. "Baseball is about patience." We get it.

Daugherty's claim of being a Pirates fan is irrelevant.
To support his ridiculous argument Daugherty points out that he loves his Buccos: "I ask this as a Pirates fan, old enough to have watched the Great One, Roberto Clemente, at Forbes Field and to have shed actual tears after World Series Game 7s in 1971 and 1979." This is like when people say they have black friends so that makes it OK to make racist comments. Congratulations, but you're still wrong.


  1. Well said! A lot more people used to come down to games from my neck of the woods in the early 90s. Having a losing record is no reason to get rid of the team.

  2. In that case they should get rid of the cubs because they have not won a title in the last 100 years +

  3. I appreciate the issue-spotting format of this post.