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The Turnover

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02.10.2021The Off-Court Playbook

Baseball to the Baseballers!

Is it time we consider socializing sports?

When you buy a stadium ticket, how much of that money goes towards improving the team? What percentage of that goes to the owner or the shareholders that hold significant stakes of the team?

Usually, when a new owner buys a baseball franchise, they inspire new confidence in the city and its fans, promising several World Series and respect in the sport. However, owners more often buy baseball teams as an investment opportunity to line their pocketbooks, to be in that upper-echelon of thirty rich people with a baseball team. Their teams cling to the bottom of the pack while their fanbase and taxpayers foot the bill. Owners sit in luxury box offices schmoozing with other uber-rich people while their fans sit in plastic seats and buy $20 Miller Lite. 

Jerry Reinsdorf is one of these owners, and this is the norm for baseball owners, because after all, sports have become a business. Profits trump winning. Baseball isn’t simply a ragtag group of Brad Pitts and Jonah Hills finding diamonds in the rough. It’s an elitist group of rich men figuring out how to exploit the labor of their employees. 

Why should one person make all the decisions of a sports team when it’s the taxpayers and fans that foot the bill for the stadium and the payroll? The die-hard fans brave through the freezing cold Chicago winters and scorching summers in uncomfortable plastic bleachers while Jerry Reinsdorf and owners like him enjoy the game in temperature-controlled luxury rooms. They drink champagne and eat lobster paid for by you, the fan. Perhaps since the workers of the sports teams are the ones that labor and create the product the fans enjoy, we should let the employees of the organization decide what to do with the surplus money—employees from the highest-paid star baseball player to the Cracker Jack seller in the stands or the grass cutter. They are the ones laboring to make revenue and the ones fans come to watch. This way, the employees can decide what to do with the surplus profit, instead of owners fattening their own bank accounts. Sports team owners pocket tens of millions of dollars per year, making profits through massive television deals, advertisements, tax breaks, ticket sales, merchandising, among many other ways. MLB owners have made $8 billion since 2010 and are notorious for colluding with one another in keeping player salaries low. Teams are assets to owners and one of their many investments. But what if that profit was reinvested into the community? Or if the profit was evenly divided amongst all the workers? The owner simply makes decisions from behind a desk, while his workers make him all the money. Maybe the surplus profit in Chicago could be used to re-fund Chicago public schools, which have faced budget cuts and closures.

I specifically use Reinsdorf to illustrate how owners ruin the sport, replacing what was once a competitive, civic-minded sport, into a business. I’m also using Reinsdorf because I love the Chicago White Sox. I have been a die-hard fan since I started watching Major League Baseball. I was there for the 2005 World Series-winning White Sox and the 100-loss 2018 White Sox. I have a personal investment in this team and the sport and I want to find alternative ways to prevent owners from having too much influence in the sport. There have been various attempts to construct an alternative, more just system, in athletics. We can learn from these experiments and apply it to Major League Baseball (and all sports leagues) in order to imagine how to give the means of production and team control to the employees that directly create the final product fans come to see.

Jerry Reinsdorf and Systemic MLB Problems

Jerry Reinsdorf, the octogenarian billionaire owner of both the Chicago Bulls and the Chicago White Sox, is undoubtedly etched into basketball and baseball history. His forty years in both sports offers him a powerful voice within the industry. His fervent supporters draw on his seven championship-winning teams (six with the Chicago Bulls, one with the Chicago White Sox), while his opponents see Reinsdorf as a bottom-line meddling, union-busting, and sycophant-surrounding tyrant. 

Reinsdorf bought the Chicago White Sox in 1981 for $19 million and the Chicago Bulls in 1985 for $16 million. He is one of only three owners in North American history with championships in two different sports and was elected to the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in 2016. 

Since 1981, the White Sox have made the playoffs six times.The White Sox have won 3139 games and lost 3112 games, for a record of .502 with Reinsdorf in charge. In comparison, the Arizona Diamondbacks have also reached the playoffs six times, however, Major League Baseball only expanded to Arizona in 1998. The only two teams to exist since 1981 to make fewer playoff appearances are the Kansas City Royals (although they did make the World Series two years in a row in 2014 and 2015) and the Seattle Mariners. 

Being in the industry for decades and being one of the more influential voices in both sports means young sports professionals seek his wisdom when first entering the business. In 2019, former Miami Marlins President of Baseball Operations David Samsom said in an interview Jerry Reinsdorf told him the secret to success is to perennially finish in second place. Reinsdorf’s definition of success certainly contrasts a fanbase’s definition of success. Reinsdorf argues that finishing just shy of the playoffs deceives fans of believing the team to still be good enough to buy a ticket. His definition of success is to make a fortune, not winning and building a championship team. Second place will draw enough fans and you don’t have to spend as much money.

When Reinsdorf threatened to move the White Sox team to Florida in 1988, Chicago lawmakers approved a $150 million subsidy to publicly fund the construction of a new baseball stadium to accommodate the Chicago White Sox. He held the city and the team’s fan base hostage, holding out for an even more lucrative deal. 30 years later and with subsequent renovations, Illinois taxpayers are still on the hook for the stadium, now named Guaranteed Rate Field (the Guaranteed Rate logo is an arrow pointing down, if you’re into unambiguous symbolism). Chicago and Illinois taxpayers pay a total of $10 million a year for the stadium and will continue to do so until 2029. Reinsdorf meanwhile, pays only $1.5 million a year on the stadium, while pocketing all sales for tickets, parking, concessions, and merchandise. In comparison, the Chicago Bears pay $6.3 million a year for Soldier Field. Included as a bonus in the deal, the White Sox did not have to pay rent until 2008. And after 2008 the team must pay $3 to $7 to the city for every ticket sold above the season attendance of 1.9 million. The White Sox have only paid that extra fee to Chicago once, in 2010

Reinsdorf has also developed a union-busting, anti-players’ union reputation, often defeating player-friendly union deals in favor of driving up profits for owners. In the 1980s, three grievances filed by the players’ union against the baseball owners resulted in a payout of $280 million in damages when the owners colluded to keep player salaries low. This prefaced the negotiation of a new collective bargaining agreement that erupted into a 232-day MLB strike that was almost catastrophic for the sport. Reinsdorf was considered one of the most ardent hard-liners, fighting hard to keep salaries low and profits high. In fact, he recently tried to veto Steve Cohen’s purchase of the Mets because he feared Cohen would drive salaries even higher. 

And good luck changing his mind, as he surrounds himself with loyal yes-men kowtowing to his every demand. Instead of firing general manager Kenny Williams after many losing seasons, he promoted Williams to Executive Vice President in 2012. In 2010, Reinsdorf rehired Jerry Krause, the architect of the Chicago Bulls dynasty, to be a scout for the Chicago White Sox. In the 2020 offseason, he convinced Tony La Russa to come out of a ten-year retirement to manage the White Sox. Tony La Russa had previously served as White Sox manager from 1979 to 1986, and this move shocked White Sox fans because of La Russa’s stance against kneeling during the national anthem and because he was charged with a DUI days before his hire. We only saw an overhaul of the Chicago Bulls front staff and coaching team after John Paxson, former general manager and president of baseball operations for the Bulls, finally somehow convinced Reinsdorf to do so. Paxson had been with the Bulls as a player and served in the front office for 17 years. 

What would Reinsdorf’s reputation be if he didn’t win seven championships? It could be said he lucked into the six basketball championships by buying the Bulls one year after the Bulls drafted Michael Jordan. Bulls fans even say the team could’ve won more championships had Reinsdorf opened up his pocketbook after the 1998. The Last Dance might have been prolonged. The 2005 World Series-winning White Sox, despite their talents, only had the 13th highest payroll that season, especially appalling when the White Sox reside in the third largest city in the United States. His teams would’ve mired in mediocrity if Michael Jordan didn’t develop into the greatest basketball player of all time. 

Existing Alternatives

There are a few examples of professional sports teams where the fans and the employees are involved with the direction of a team. 

Let’s start with the Green Bay Packers. I just need to get something out of the way first. I’m from Chicago, so fuck the Packers. With that being said, the Packers are publicly-owned, with over 300,000 fans owning stock in the team. Buying a stock means you have a piece in the ownership of the Packers. Instead of one owner, shareholders elect a 45-member board of directors, seven-member executive committee, and a team president (Mark Murphy) to make operational decisions. However, buying stock in the Packers is more of a glorified membership system, with extra tiered benefits the more stocks you buy. Packers stockholders are unable to receive dividends in their investments or trade or sell their stocks. The Packers’ board of directors sell shares of the team in order to fund various projects, such as expanding and renovating Lambeau Field. While this method may be more fair than footing the bill onto the city’s residents, whether they enjoy sports or not, this glorified fan club doesn’t allow shareholders to hold any power in franchise decisions, as decisions are left to the people at the top of the operations team. At $250 a share, this system also only allows for those with extra change to spare to buy a piece of the Packers. It’s a poor investment for people living paycheck to paycheck, making it a flawed system. 

What about a true non-profit team that reinvests profits into the city? From 1997 to 2009, The Memphis Redbirds, a AAA baseball team and an affiliate of the St. Louis Cardinals was owned by a non-profit organization called the Memphis Redbirds Baseball Foundation. Dean Jernigan bought the team in 1997 and gave the team to the Foundation made up of civic and business leaders. The foundation required half the directors to be women and to reflect Memphis’s racial composition. They funded programs such as the Returning Baseball to the Inner City (RBI) and Sports Teams Returning in the Public Education System (STRIPES) to increase youth participation in sports. While the foundation was able to reinvest profits into the community to get more children playing sports, they were unable to keep up with the payments of maintaining a sports team, and defaulted on their payments, and the team was sold to Global Spectrum, a private corporation.

So is there another example where the team’s employees had more control over the direction of the team? During the military dictatorship in Brazil from 1964 to 1985, Sócrates, one of Brazil’s most high-profile footballers at the time playing for the Brazilian club Corinthians, recognized that club owners were gaining too much power over their players. Sócrates wanted to use his platform to draw attention to Brazil’s right-wing military oppression. He began a movement called the “Corinthians Democracy” where everyone within the organization was allowed a vote in all matters pertaining to the team. Team decisions “from how and when to travel to away matches to which player to sign next was voted on. Win bonuses were split equally amongst all players and a percentage shared out between all of the club staff.” Sócrates also gave speeches in front of millions of people during matches in favor of free elections. This system gives players and employees a bigger voice within the organization, as the power of team control comes from the bottom, instead of the owner at the top, effectively cutting out the team owner as the middle man.

In May of 1968, a seven-week period of wildcat strikes in Paris protesting against the rise of capitalism, American imperialism, and the decreasing of workers’ rights led President Charles de Gaulle to flee France. Workers fought for higher wages and French students occupied buildings reprimanding French and American imperial involvement in the wars in Vietnam and Southeast Asia. On May 22nd, French footballers stormed the headquarters of the French Football Federation, peacefully occupied the building for six days, and demanded football to be returned to a sport of joy, not profit. French footballers were insulted by the French Football Federation making huge profits off the sport. The footballers’ salaries were low and were forced into pro-owner, lengthy contracts. Football facilities were also low quality because owners refused to improve them. The Footballer’s Action Committee released this statement: 

“DEMAND THE IMMEDIATE DISMISSAL (by means of a referendum of the 600,000 footballers, controlled by themselves) of the profiteers of football and the insulters of the footballers. FREE FOOTBALL FROM THE TUTELAGE OF THE MONEY OF THE PATHETIC PRETEND-PATRONS who are at the root of the decay of football. And demand from the state the SUBSIDIES that it accords to all other sports, and which the pontiffs of the Federation have never claimed. So that football may remain yours, we call on you to MAKE YOUR WAY WITHOUT DELAY to the headquarters of the Federation which has again become YOUR HOUSE, at 60 Avenue d'Iena, Paris. United, we will make football once again what it ought never to have ceased to be - the sport of joy, the sport of the world of tomorrow which all the workers have started building. EVERYONE TO 60 AVENUE D'IENA!" 

Eventually the French Football Federation gave in to the footballers, creating more opportunities for players to participate and make decisions within the Federation. 

This offers us a blueprint on how baseball can return to a sport uncorrupted by the increasing greed of team owners. Baseball has adopted a business-first, winning-second mentality, and this is something all sports fans can feel within their favorite sport. If you spent your hard-earned money to buy tickets to see your favorite team in action, shouldn’t all of that money go towards the team, and not towards the owner?

What is to be done?

If the players and the employees have the ability to create that final product for the fans, why should there be a middle man? Owners exist as a vanity project for multi-billionaires to flaunt their wealth. More often than not, they hinder a team’s success in order to make higher profits. Owners can be cut out, with profits divided more evenly amongst all the employees of a team, and a team’s direction can be more justly controlled by the people directly involved with that final product. 

Sports are supposed to be entertainment, to forget about our daily troubles and stresses of working to put food on the table (read: capitalism). There were fewer relaxing pastimes than coming home from my old waitering job, cracking open a beer, and catching up on the Sox game. However sports become less entertaining when you realize athletes are subject to the same labor exploitation and alienation that waiters and other workers face. Sure, the Mike Trouts and Bryce Harpers are making upwards of $40 million a year, but the majority of baseball consists of minor leaguers who could be cut from the roster at any time. They face the same precarious work as blue-collar workers. Many baseball players were signed out of foreign countries or high school at a young age, hoping to make it to the big leagues and end the cycle of poverty for their families. But the vast majority don’t reach stardom or even just one day in the Major Leagues. Minor league baseball players are paid less than $1000 a month for only the months baseball is in season. Baseball players could also be traded at any moment, with no say in the process. One day they could be in Charlotte, the next day they could be in Salt Lake City for another organization. 

We also don’t often hear about the less-heralded workers who cut the grass, sell Cracker Jacks, clean the stadium, direct you to parking, security guards, etc. These are people who work behind the scenes that also play a huge role in the final product but have no access to the means of production. These are equally hard-working individuals that help make the owners surplus profit that in turn fatten their wallets. Shouldn’t these individuals also have a say in the direction of a baseball team?

Sports are less interesting and less fun when you realize it’s just a business, when it serves to make money for the person at the top. A good portion of the tickets you buy, the hotdogs, nachos, beer, merchandise go to the owner at the end of the season. Owners don’t have skin in the game for their fans’ entertainment, they invest to make millions of dollars every year. They buy sports teams for their own vanity, to be in that tight inner circle of thirty rich white men. These parasites just want to show off their prized possessions. They often serve as an obstacle to the sport, as evidenced by Jerry Reinsdorf’s forty years of incompetence in baseball. Sports can still exist without owners, as the team’s every single employee from top to bottom can be in charge of the team’s operations. Maybe then we won’t have to think of sports as a business but a means to improve a community around it. 

Bing Wang is a die-hard Chicago White Sox fan and a die-hard Warriors, Lakers, Raptors, and as of January 13th, Nets fan.