Yesterday we heard the latest cry from some within baseball’s inner circle looking for the Tampa Bay Rays to be contracted. This immediately led to some (once again) explaining why contraction is a silly idea and why it will never happen in Major League Baseball. But that doesn’t mean that the threat should be ignored.
We have written on several occasions why contraction is highly unlikely. But the fact remains, some in baseball want the Rays contracted. And while they may not get contraction, they may get something else that could be nearly as damaging to the Rays and our hopes of keeping baseball in the Bay Area.
Who wants the Rays contracted?
When the latest story on contraction broke only days after Stuart Sternberg and St. Pete Mayor Bill Foster exchanged words on the Rays’ quest for a new stadium, many assumed that the talk of contraction was just one of Bud Selig’s “tricks” to get the Rays out of their contract and inside Tampa’s borders.
But Mike Oznanian of Forbes.com cited “high-revenue team owners” who don’t have much of a stake in the Rays moving to Tampa. And based on previous comments, it seems clear that we are talking about the Steinbrenners (owners of the Yankees) and John Henry (owner of the Red Sox).
What do they stand to gain from contraction?
In the early days of revenue sharing and luxury tax (a tax on payrolls above $170M), the burden of giving money to smaller-market teams was eased by the idea that the Yankees and Red Sox had an easy path to the playoffs. And part of that was playing 18-19 games each year against the lowly Rays.
As long as both teams reaped the benefits of playing on the biggest stage, the Red Sox and Yankees didn’t mind subsidizing the Rays’ (and other teams) operations. But now the Rays are competitive. And they are still receiving money from the Yankees and the Red Sox (the only two teams to pay the luxury tax in 2010). And don’t think those teams haven’t noticed.
Hank Steinbrenner came out over the winter and openly called for baseball to take teams away from markets that aren’t supportive. This was a none-to-veiled shot at the Tampa Bay area. And in the past, Henry has called for an overhaul to Major League Baseball’s revenue sharing system. Henry openly complained about teams “getting $80 million before they ever sell a ticket.”
Why call for contraction if it won’t happen?
Our guess is that this is simply a Collective Bargaining Agreement negotiating tactic. Maybe Henry and the Steinbrenners do want the Rays contracted. But what they really want is to stop paying the Rays to be competitive. They want the Rays to stop taking the Yankees and Red Sox money and using it against those teams and taking away their birthright, a trip to the playoffs.
Why should we be worried if contraction will never happen?
OK, Henry and the Steinbrenners won’t convince Selig and the rest of the owners to contract the Rays. Selig has stated very clearly that Major League Baseball has moved beyond contraction.
But what scares us is the compromise. What will the Yankees and Red Sox get instead? Will the luxury tax be eliminated? Will revenue sharing be reduced? Will the Rays be moved to San Antonio and out of the AL East (Selig has stated on several occasions that he wants reallignment).
When the Rays’ financial documents were leaked last year, we saw that the team was turning a profit, barely. And that included revenue sharing and the 2008 playoff revenue.
If the luxury tax or revenue sharing are reduced or eliminated, it is hard to imagine that this team can even sustain a $40 million payroll. And it is hard to imagine that the team can survive in the Bay Area, especially if plans for a new stadium remain stuck in the mud along the east coast of St. Pete.
So contraction may be unlikely. And while we can’t imagine Major League Baseball is ready to give up the strong local TV ratings (5th in MLB last year), there have been reports that Selig may be getting ready to move the Rays.
We can all laugh at the threat to contract the Rays. But that doesn’t mean the Rays are safe. And that should scare you.