There is a wide disparity in player payroll among Major League Baseball teams. In 2013 the top team (the NY Yankees) paid its players approximately ten times what the bottom team (the Houston Astros) did. While payroll is not everything in baseball, it does have a fairly strong correlation with the competitiveness of the team. This was born out by the results of this year's Astros team: a dismal 51 wins and 111 losses.
Yet the Astros are hugely profitable. And this is no fluke: thanks to the strength of the business and revenue sharing among the clubs, it is possible to operate a profitable team which is not competitive. But what is good for business is not necessarily good for the league or for the fans. So here are some proposals for increasing the competitiveness of the league.
There are many talented baseball players who make their way onto MLB teams from the United States and all over the world. This does not necessarily mean that there is a enough talent to spread around 30 teams, especially when there is no salary cap or luxury tax. The same goes for coaches and umpires. To promote the strength of the league, it is best to make the talent more dense at that top, and that means eliminating teams.
Thirty is not a great number of teams for sports leagues in general, which, by some ineffable law of the universe, strive for factors of four. So let's cut down the number of major league teams to 24. This way there can be an even number of teams in each league (12), and an equal number of teams in each of three divisions in each league (4).
But what happens to the unlucky six teams which get cut?
As much as it pains me to admit it, there is some innovation in soccer which could be useful here. Major League Baseball could establish a two-tier system with promotion and relegation. The six teams dropping from the bigs would join one of the Triple-A leagues. Additionally, all existing Triple-A teams would have to be unjoined from their parent big league club and made independent. The farm system would have to consist of AA and lower teams. Yes, this is pie in the sky stuff here!
Where I see the strength of this model is in that cities can field a "right-sized" team. The stadium and payroll can match the local market, not the MLB baseline. So Kansas City, for example, could sell out a 25,000 seat stadium, and Miami could field a \$30 million payroll with a straight face. Then the ability of teams to move up and down will match the relative abilities of the franchises and lead to more even competition.
Each year the bottom six teams for MLB (last place in each division) would move down, and the six best AAA clubs would move up. Sadly for Chicago, after 2013 this would have meant losing its entire MLB presence. But in this system, cities cannot take their status for granted, and have to actually compete to stay at the top. And it leaves some room for Cinderalla stories. Maybe the Salt Lake Bees will scrap their way into the major leagues and make a playoff run. This would also provide more excitement for fans to root for their local Triple-A teams: they could get promoted and be playing the Tigers next year.
The overall goal is to let competition drive the motivations of the owners. Obviously playing in the major leagues would afford owners a much greater opportunity for revenue, so it would be in their best interests to field a team which can get there and stay there. If any owners try to coast, they'll get penalized. Fans will be rewarded, because the business goals will more naturally match the competitive aims of the club. And that is for the best.
In my next post, I'll attempt to tackle performance-enhancing drugs, the live ball era, and some random other ideas.