Why do bad teams lose? It’s their own fault.

August 26, 2010 |

Last Saturday, the Pittsburgh Pirates lost to the New York Mets by the final score of 5-1. A few days later, the Baltimore Orioles lost 7-5 to the Chicago White Sox. Seemingly unrelated, these two losses represented the constant futility of these organizations. Each one was the 82nd loss for the team, guaranteeing the Pirates their 18th straight losing season and the Orioles’ 13th. The storied franchises have 8 World Series titles between them, including facing one another in both 1971 and 1979. Yet for over a decade, they have been rendered irrelevant. Many fans ask why. Many wonder how once proud franchises lose for nearly twenty consecutive years.

Often I hear fans of these teams suggest that MLB should institute a salary cap to insure smaller market teams cannot lose based solely on a relative dearth of financial resources compared to those of the Yankees and Mets. However, the blame often lies not on the competition, but on the management of the smaller franchises. Recently leaked documents have shown small market teams, such as the Pittsburgh Pirates, pocketing huge profits based on the MLB’s revenue-sharing policy related to its luxury tax. With a payroll of about $50 million, the Pirates still managed to book $15 million in profits in 2009. For a comparison, the New York Yankees’ payroll will be over $200 million in 2010, while the middle third of teams fall in the $70-100 million range. An unwillingness to spend money hinders teams more than the larger markets’ advantages. The MLB needs to install a salary “floor” making it necessary for teams to spend more money on payroll, especially if the owners of those struggling teams continue to make money off a city’s misery.

Success in the MLB has not been concentrated in only large markets. Many see the Yankees as the dominating force with unprecedented revenues and payrolls, yet they have won only two titles in the past decade. The Boston Red Sox have two championships as well, but smaller markets have notable success in baseball, due to smartly investing in player development and evaluation, using minor leagues and drafts to cultivate prospects. The Florida Marlins are regularly near the bottom of the league in payroll, but they still won the 2003 World Series against the Yankees. The Tampa Bay Rays have built a successful team without the finances of a New York or Chicago franchise, leading to a World Series appearance in 2008. The Minnesota Twins have faced threats of contraction and relocation due to a lack of financial viability, but they are well on their way to reaching the playoffs for the sixth time in nine years. These teams have spent money with a purpose, and still managed to piece together successful teams with smaller payrolls.

Meanwhile, the NFL may give the impression that every team has a chance in any given year. However, the same problems of futility exist even with a salary cap. The Detroit Lions and the Buffalo Bills have not made the playoffs since 1999. The Cincinnati Bengals have not won a playoff game in nearly twenty years. Poor ownership and management lead to a poor on-field product. Meanwhile, a level playing field for NFL owners and GMs has still turned some teams into consistently successful without the financial advantages of MLB powerhouses. The Patriots won three Super Bowls this decade with a salary cap, more championships than any MLB team can boast. The Colts have made the playoffs for eight straight seasons. No MLB team has an active streak of more than three playoff appearances.

A salary cap does not guarantee league-wide parity and competitive teams. Ownership and management are ultimately responsible for the product based on their willingness to spend money (and spend it wisely) rather than focus on turning a profit. Teams such as the Minnesota Twins have shown that small market teams can thrive by shrewdly evaluating talent and spending money accordingly within their limited budget. The fans of the Pittsburgh Pirates and Baltimore Orioles need to be storming their front office demanding ownership change their business formula. Otherwise, next year will only mark one more in a never-ending string of losing. And they will only have themselves to blame.