By Andrew Zimbalist
Will Major League Baseball downsize after the World Series? Commissioner Bud Selig, asked to say it ain't so to a spate of rumors, will concede only that the question of whether to eliminate two teams could be considered as early as a Nov. 6 owners' meeting.
Contraction certainly has some allure for the Lords of the Game. With two fewer low-revenue teams, the share-the-wealth levy on rich clubs would be reduced. And there would be two fewer teams with little or no chance to participate in the postseason. But revenue-sharing would not be eliminated, and there would still be plenty of teams without a prayer of making it to the Series. More important, reducing the roster of clubs from 30 to 28 would create enormous problems.
Any attempt to eliminate, say, the Montreal Expos and the Florida Marlins (or the Minnesota Twins), is sure to rouse a posse of state attorneys general, aspiring owners, the players union, and members of Congress. If the Expos head for the last locker room, for example, it means the team won't relocate to Northern Virginia, Sacramento, Las Vegas, or Portland, Ore. If the Marlins fold, it may provoke Florida to sue MLB on antitrust grounds for attempting to decrease output in the face of healthy demand.
More important, the players union, which stands to lose 80 members--major-league rosters have 40 players, though active rosters are 25--won't stand still for contraction. Contract talks are scheduled to begin after the postseason, and any attempt to shut down teams will land on the bargaining table.
At the least, baseball would face a public-relations minefield. The courts or Congress would likely decide that baseball is acting in bad faith and narrow the antitrust exemption that allows it to, among other things, maintain restrictive labor practices in the minor leagues.
PLAY OR PAY. There is also the matter of paying for the shuttered franchises. Each owner would want at least what they paid for their teams, plus any accumulated book losses suffered--a sum that may reach $400 million. Further, paying off affiliated minor-league franchises would cost about $60 million more.
Then there's the question of rational business strategy. Most businesses, even monopolies, like to expand into new markets. Wouldn't MLB's national TV ratings go up if there were more baseball fans in Washington, Las Vegas, or elsewhere? Wouldn't national licensing of MLB products be given a fillip?
Finally, has anyone noticed that the Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire, and Sammy Sosa assaults on the home-run record have all come after the 1998 expansion to 30 teams? There is a good statistical reason for that. The so-called talent dilution from adding 50 major leaguers was just enough to give these sluggers the edge that put them over the top. Challenges to longstanding records are fun, and they crank up fan interest. Go back to 28 teams, and baseball gets duller. Zimbalist is the Robert A. Woods Professor of Economics at Smith College. His latest book is The Economics of Sport.