Why sports team owners suck
As long-term readers will attest, my relationship with sports team owners is extremely complicated. No, seriously – I wrote a whole book about smarmy executives derailing my fandom, and the situation continues to worsen. In fact, the outlook of sports ownership – clubs morphing into faceless playthings of an exclusive cabal – has never been so bleak, and somebody must sound the alarm before it is too late.
First, a brief synopsis of my story – indeed, of my book – for those who are new around here. I’m a diehard fan of Tranmere Rovers, an English fourth division football club overshadowed by Liverpool and Everton, juggernaut neighbours who lurk across the River Mersey in Premier League opulence, taunting and teasing with ignorant panache. Over time, the sly digs and knowing slights calcify into disdain, and Rovers supporters develop an organic aversion to the big, bad bullies in red and blue. As such, when John Henry and Tom Werner – owners of the Boston Red Sox, my favourite Major League Baseball (MLB) team – purchased Liverpool for £300 million in 2010, my life was turned upside down. I cut all ties with the Red Sox and eventually became a fan of the New York Yankees, their nemesis. Honestly, buy the book – it answers your many questions.
Anyhow, twelve years down the line, part of me rejoiced this week upon hearing that Henry and Werner – progenitors of Fenway Sports Group (FSG), a prolific investment hub – are exploring options to dilute their Liverpool stake or sell the club entirely. The 15-year-old Ryan would be ecstatic about such a cathartic parting, incubating the Red Sox from football contagion. However, the 28-year-old Ryan is a little more philosophical, resigned to the emotionless machinations of Byzantine sports ownership in the modern age. After all, if you follow the money for long enough these days, you will see it trickle through murky, maniacal hands.
Once bitter rivals, the Yankees and Red Sox are now indirect business partners
The impending FSG-LFC divorce sent me down another sports ownership rabbit hole, and the terrain is unfailingly grim. With little digging, I found dotted links between Liverpool, the Red Sox and the Yankees, casting my earlier work in a slightly ironic hue. The teams are tentatively tethered via Redbird Capital, another sleek investment firm that currently owns 11% of FSG and 13% of the YES Network, a regional sports channel part-owned by the Yankees. In essence, Redbird is invested – literally and figuratively – in both MLB franchises. If the Red Sox or Yankees win, so does Redbird. Oh, and the Yankees recently partnered with Redbird to buy AC Milan, adding another layer to the incestuous mess.
But wait, there is more. Much more, in fact. FSG also owns the Pittsburgh Penguins, despite partnering with the Boston Bruins, an NHL rival, in ownership of the New England Sports Network (NESN), a YES replica. When the Penguins and Bruins inevitably meet in a playoff series, Henry and Werner will be conflicted. If pressed, they will likely want their Penguins to win, but an entertaining seven-game series would make for great viewing – and revenue – on NESN, obfuscating the entire scenario. Mix in the fabled provincialism of Boston sports fans, and FSG’s dispassionate mission undermines those who originally enabled it.
Such conflicted corporatism is perhaps best embodied by Gerry Cardinale, Redbird managing partner. A veteran of Goldman Sachs, Cardinale has advising the Yankees for more than two decades, orchestrating the creation of YES; the retainment of controversial superstar Alex Rodriguez; and the building of a new Yankee Stadium. However, through Redbird, Cardinale is also a part-owner of the Red Sox. How does that work? Meanwhile, Goldman Sachs is moderating the current Liverpool sales process, further complicating the esoteric agenda.
Sure, people do business with those they know and trust, but what happened to individuality – the fuel of difference and, thus, rivalry – in professional sports? The Yankees and Red Sox used to hate each other. George Steinbrenner, the Yankees’ late patriarch, flipped a middle finger at the Boston team bus following the 2003 American League Championship Series. Barely a generation later, in 2018, Hal Steinbrenner, son of George, sat schmoozing with John Henry at a Liverpool game. The Yanks and Sox then collaborated on a series of MLB games in London, selling their phony rivalry to agog foreigners – myself included. Apparently, money melts distinct values into an amorphous soup of bland plutocracy, and there is little we can do to halt the process.
Vacuous and capricious, Henry will rub shoulders with anyone if there is money to be pillaged. Just look at his sinister leadership of the failed European Super League (ESL) venture. A hairbrained concept that sought to overthrow domestic football leagues in favour of a glitzy continental breakaway, the ESL attracted a hodgepodge of enemies united in gluttony – Liverpool and Manchester United; Arsenal, Chelsea and Tottenham; Barcelona, Atletico Madrid and Real Madrid. AC Milan were involved, too, as were Manchester City, another club with which the Yankees are loosely affiliated via New York City FC. It is remarkable, really, that the prospect of a quick buck can inspire so many executives to bury ancient grudges overnight.
The scourge of private equity in MLB
Apparently unperturbed by the prospect of elites conspiring in such a sketchy manner, MLB loosened its rules on private equity investment in 2019, allowing consortia to purchase up to 15% of individual franchises. Ostensibly, the shift was motivated by franchise valuations outstripping levels of individual and familial wealth. In 2017, for instance, the Miami Marlins sold for $1.2 billion, despite consistently ranking near the bottom of Forbes’ MLB valuation list. According to MLB, a world where the Yankees could realistically fetch $7 billion called for the relaxation of private equity restrictions in team ownership. After all, the pool of people capable of pulling off such a monumental takeover unilaterally, without external funding, is vanishingly small, and that could pose an existential threat down the line.
Of course, since the gates were lifted, private equity has flooded MLB. The days of one passionate entrepreneur bankrolling a team out of civic philanthropy are dead. The George Steinbrenner model is a dusty relic, and even traditionalist owners – Jerry Reinsdorf, Bill DeWitt Jr., Chris Ilitch – have augmented their family businesses with external investment. It may not be the only way to thrive in modern sports, but it is the preferred way – the philosophy du jour among baseball’s bourgeoisie. If you do not have dozens of shadowy part-owners propping up the payroll, you are unlikely to compete for championships and titles.
Take Arctos Sports Partners, for instance. Yet another private equity behemoth, Arctos holds stakes in five MLB teams – the Dodgers, Cubs, Giants, Astros and Padres – in addition to the ubiquitous investment in FSG. Arctos has even hired Theo Epstein, lauded baseball luminary, as an executive-in-residence. Epstein’s simultaneous role as a special consultant to MLB, literally responsible for on-field rule changes, barely seems to matter, despite flagrant conflict concerns to the layman. Ultimately, in an ecosystem clogged with mercenaries and functionaries, interchangeable instead of sequestered, another double-ended arrow on the flowchart can be easily swept under the rug, so long as Sports, Inc., continues to profit.
Baseball has a homogeneity problem
Rob Manfred, MLB commissioner, recently bragged that his league is approaching $11 billion in annual revenues. All seems rosy in the big league garden, but at what cost? Fans are already disillusioned with the MLB owners following their stubborn intransigence during the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent collective bargaining agreement (CBA) negotiations. Baseball has largely rebounded from shortened seasons and ludicrous lockouts, but a healthy balance sheet belies deeper fissures in the hardball fabric. Baseball has cultural issues that cannot be solved by money, and loyal fans are being screwed in the process.
Just look around the league. Teams are largely indistinguishable. Sure, they have different coloured caps and idiosyncratic ballparks, but they all have Nike logos embroidered on their jerseys. They all have front offices stocked with Ivy League brainiacs. They all have Rapsodo printouts dictating the minutiae of in-game strategy, from defensive positioning to bullpen management. They all have sluggers swinging from their heels, rarely putting the ball in play while striking out 200 times a year. They are all the same. Once a bastion of eccentricity, baseball has become a cesspit of homogeneity – from the owners’ box on down.
Sentiment is dead. The human element is dead. Character and personality are dead. Representing a community or an ethos is dead. Now, making money is all that matters, and data nerds are entrusted exclusively to build teams that maximise efficiency; teams that win enough games to fill stadiums without jeopardising the bottom line. There is little regard for the unique heritage of a team; for the proprietary ethics woven into each sacred uniform. Those at the top want to ring every last penny out of these generic corporate shells, and fans are an inconvenient means to that vapid end.
I sympathise with Joe Maddon, baseball’s incumbent pariah, in this regard. A one-time analytical evangelist helming the data-driven Tampa Bay Rays, Maddon was fired by the Los Angeles Angels this summer due to ideological differences with Perry Minasian, the team’s general manager. While receptive to information and statistics, Maddon resented the encroachment – physically and philosophically – of Minasian’s front office into his dugout. A baseball lifer with more than 45 years’ experience in various capacities, Maddon saw his hard-won wisdom trumped by heatmaps and algorithms. Joe continues to callout baseball’s intellectual elitism – misguided at best, discriminatory at worst – and has seemingly been blacklisted from managerial interviews so far this offseason. Thou shalt not expose the baseball intelligentsia, I guess.
Sports team owners suck, so maybe stop caring about them
Nevertheless, returning to the central theme of this polemic – sports team owners and their duplicitous dealings – the gravy train shows no signs of abating. There may be some decent MLB owners, or MLB owners capable of occasionally doing decent things, but I have a hard time finding them. More frequently, these tactless figureheads tolerate egregious shit – racism, domestic violence, human trafficking, steroid abuse, sign-stealing, computer hacking – so long as the turnstiles keep clicking.
Therefore, an argument can be made that sports fans must protect themselves from the fruits of inauthentic billionaire largesse, just as cult survivors must insert safeguards in their daily operations. How, though? One radical suggestion? Stop caring who owns your favourite sports teams, because they are probably scumbags. And, even if they are not scumbags, they are probably somehow connected to or reliant upon scumbags deep in the compromised supply chain. The sporting powerbrokers – commissioners, CEOs, presidents – do not seem to care who owns what, so why should we? Perhaps we should not.
Maybe we should root for the team, not the owner. Maybe we should endorse a secularised vision of sports – separating ownership from front office and front office from the field. Drill down a level in your criteria for picking teams to support and stories to adore. Rather than bickering about polished executives, celebrate mud-caked players. Rather than expending energy on payrolls and politics, enjoy home runs and ranging plays into the shortstop gap. Rather than worrying about luxury tax penalties, watch the actual game. You may fall in love with it all over again.
Our post-millennial zeitgeist is obsessed with tech bros and stockbrokers, entrepreneurs and startups. We place on a pedestal any fresh-faced icon who wraps traditional wisdom in contemporary jargon, disrupting industries with boundless energy. Sports are not immune to these trends, and baseball is especially endowed with that exhilarating collegiate buzz. As a kid, I wanted to be a sophisticated general manager someday, whereas my forebears yearned to emulate Nomar Garciaparra or Roger Clemens, Joe DiMaggio or Ted Williams, Babe Ruth or Ty Cobb. That speaks volumes about where the game is headed, and we must shift our focus back to the diamond.
Sports are supposed to be fun, not torturous, and freeing yourself from worrying about billionaires who never worry about you could be incredibly liberating. That is what I may do, anyway. Maybe my days of caring about sports owners are over, because it is a fight we – mere ticket-paying, merchandise-buying mortals – can never win. Maybe I will return to being a simple fan, because being an obsessive front office watchdog is an exhausting recipe for discontent.