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Sports Salaries Slump

by Steven Elliott

Baseball is normally a big money business.
Baseball has always been a mirror for issues in American society. From Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier in 1947 being a harbinger of the Civil Rights Movement to the greed and deceit that led to a shocked and angered fanbase during the recently passed Steroids Era, baseball has always had the ability to reflect a bit of America in itself.

The economic crisis that has dominated most aspects of public life in the United States for the past year has similarly found a microcosmic representation in America’s pastime. The 2008-2009 off-season provides a cautionary tale of what impact the recession can have on a multi-billion dollar industry.

The mid-2000’s saw ballplayers’ salaries that seemed to double every year, as rising revenues and a strong union led to contracts that were immense in both length and total dollars. A brief look at some of the richer deals in the sport is quite telling: Carlos Lee (Astros:100 million dollars over 6 years beginning in 2007), Vernon Wells (Blue Jays:126 million over 7 years beginning in 2008), and Alfonso Soriano (Cubs: 136 million dollars over 8 years beginning in 2008) are all examples of flawed players who received large contracts from mid to large market clubs in the years immediately preceding the bailout. The 2008-2009 off-season was greatly anticipated before the bailout as many prominent players were due to become free-agents. In many cases however, the large contracts failed to materialize.

In anticipation of high-value deals, numerous players declined lucrative extension offers from their 2008 teams to test the open market instead. The Arizona Diamondbacks balked at impending free-agent second-basemen Orlando Hudson’s 15 million dollar per year demands and chose to let him go at the end of the season. Angels closer Francisco Rodriguez , after setting the single-season saves record in 2008, was expected to surpass the four year, 46 million dollar record for relievers set by Francisco Cordero in 2007.

Due to the bad economy, however, Rodriguez settled for a three year, 12 million dollar deal from the Mets, while Hudson ended up accepting an offer for one year, 3 million dollars from the Dodgers. To further illustrate how much the economy has declined in the past year, one could sign first baseman Jason Giambi (32 homeruns in 2008, 5.25 million dollars) second baseman Orlando Hudson (.280 career average, 3 million dollar salary), short stop Orlando Cabrera (.281 average in 2008, 4 million dollar salary), third basemen Joe Crede (all-star in 2008, 2.5 million dollars), and outfielders Pat Burrell ( 33 home runs in 2008, 8 million dollars) and Bobby Abreu (100 RBI in 2008, 3 million dollars) for less that the 27.5 million dollar yearly salary that resulted from Alex Rodriguez’s 10-year deal signed in 2008.

With attendance expected to drop by as much as twenty percent for the 2009 season, player salaries do not appear to be about to go up any time soon. From the Detroit Tigers losing some 30 percent of their season ticket holders to the New York Mets unable to see out their brand-new stadium, fans across America are choosing to hold on to their money rather than spend it at the ballpark.

Many large market general managers are expecting teams with financial problems to trade away their stars this summer when they become unaffordable. Now, more than ever, every game will count; for example, the Tampa Bay Rays were able to afford extra players this year because of the added revenue of just two playoff games last October. Thus, even if there are more empty seats in the stands, teams will be trying harder than ever to make it to the postseason.

Finally, there may be cause for optimism. If baseball is truly a barometer of the nation, and the Yankees representative of their home city, the situation may not be as dire as believed for America’s financial center. The Yankees spent over 420 million dollars this past winter.

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