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There’s no such thing as a small-market team

Just because an owner doesn’t want to spend more money doesn’t mean they can’t.

Arizona Diamondbacks v Miami Marlins
Me, greedy?

This article might qualify as a hot take. The premise is right there in the title – that “small-market teams” are not real things, but teams that have self-defined themselves as poor and struggling in a way that benefits them over other owners and the players – but it is, at the very least, moderately counterintuitive.

You probably have a sense for what the phrase used in the title is supposed to mean; a “small-market team” is one that plays in a smaller market (duh) and thus is financially disadvantaged when compared to their colleagues and competition. Various attempts have been made at calculating market size; the following ranking comes from the expiring CBA, which used a non-public formula to calculate “market rank” for revenue sharing purposes.

Per Evan Drellich of the Boston Herald, the order of teams is changing slightly in the new CBA; it’s not clear what “market rank” was based on previously, but in the new CBA, it’s a product of the population, income, and number of cable TV subscribers in each team’s market, as compared to the league average.

You can quibble about the definition, but those variables are probably a fine way of measuring how many potential baseball fans exist in a given geographic area, and how much money they collectively have to spend. The problem comes in that second bit; how do you define what the geographic boundaries of a team’s market is?

Again, there are various options – the one I see cited most often is using Census definitions of each metropolitan area – but my problem is with the premise. Why are teams geographically limited at all? It’s not the 1940s, when live television broadcasts didn’t exist, or the 1960s, when national television broadcasts didn’t exist, or even the 1980s, when the internet didn’t exist. With the advent of live streaming, the geographic limitations on markets have fallen away entirely, and fanbases have spread further as a result. In the past, if you moved, you had basically no choice but to adopt the local team; now, you can be a fan of whatever team you want. Indeed, if you aren’t a cable subscriber, it’s actually easier to be a fan of a team if you don’t live nearby, since then you aren’t blacked out from watching them over the internet. Every team can compete for the fandom of every person around the world. Where that team plays is less relevant than it’s every been.

Here’s a chart comparing each team’s average payroll rank since 2005 (the first season with the same team-city pairings in place today) and their market size ranking under the old CBA.

There’s certainly a relationship, which might lend credence to the idea that measures of market size are picking up on something real about the ability to spend of each team. But here are the biggest positive outliers over that period, teams that have spent more than their market size would suggest: the Cardinals, who have a .555 winning percentage since 2005, third-highest in MLB; the Tigers, who have a .525 winning percentage, eighth-highest; and the Red Sox, who have a .539 winning percentage, fourth-highest. In other words, the simplest way for teams to break out of their market size limits is the obvious one: win a lot. Winning teams have fans, in their area and around the world, and those fans give that team money which that team can then spend. Being a small-market team is not a badge of inferiority that certain teams have to carry throughout life like a scarlet letter; it’s the product of choices, usually made by the owner, to scrimp and save, to not sign free agents, and to not try as hard as possible to win. That’s what makes a small-market team, not where they happen to play.

Division Series - Oakland Athletics v Detroit Tigers - Game One Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images

Perhaps no team better exemplifies this than the Oakland Athletics. The A’s are darlings of the sabermetric world, due in large part to their clever use of tight budgets to nonetheless be quite successful over a sustained period of time. Lots of us can probably trace our beginnings in baseball analysis back to Moneyball, and its depiction of Billy Beane as the brilliant, heroic GM making due with a shoestring budget. That budget is often cited as the reason for many of the A’s woes, be it failing to sign big free agents or their inability to play in a fully functional stadium, and since 2005, they’ve averaged the fourth-lowest payroll in MLB.

But any restraints Oakland has to work around are self-imposed. Under the new CBA, the A’s rank seventh in market size, tied with their neighbors the Giants, just below the Cubs and White Sox, and just above the Red Sox, Phillies, and Blue Jays, all of whom run much healthier payrolls than Oakland. The Coliseum is admittedly bad, but its reputation as a trash heap is at least somewhat self-imposed, as the Athletics have spent so much time describing its many failures in an effort to maneuver their way into a new stadium.

It seems MLB has realized that the A’s poverty is illusory as well; the team will no longer receive revenue sharing checks from the rest of the league, which amounted to more than $34 million in 2016. In 2014, Forbes estimated the A’s annual profit at $27 million, almost entirely thanks to that revenue sharing. A measure meant in theory to level the playing field was instead used to line the pockets of an ownership group that spent every available moment building up its own poverty. The A’s truly are the archetypical small-market team, in that they don’t actually play in a small market, and could bring in more revenue and spend much, much more in payroll if they actually wanted to.

I think this euphemistic gloss – “small-market team” instead of “stingy, anti-competitive team” – has remained in place for as long as it has because lots of fans conflate smart or clever actions with good actions. This is why so many Cubs fans supported the service time shenanigans that delayed Kris Bryant’s free agency by an extra year and saved the team many millions of dollars. Chicago was smart to keep him in the minors for an undeserved month, and the inquiry stops there, instead of continuing to the question of whether we should encourage or discourage these enormous corporations from pursuing greater profits at the expense of their labor force. There’s a similar dynamic at work when it comes to the fiction of small-market teams; everyone knows what these teams are doing, that they’re making deliberate choices in order to appear poor and reap the benefits that result, but because it’s a smart business decision, we don’t question it. We respect the hustle, basically.

And if that hustle was only being perpetrated on other owners – if these conniving superrich maniacs were engaged in a self-contained cycle of pickpocketing – then I think that would be fine. But we’re the marks of this con, too. The result of this poverty charade is that the baseball we see is worse, less competitive and more unbalanced than it would be otherwise. That’s bad, and if we want to make it better, step one is refusing to let teams self-define as poor.

There is no such thing as a small market team, and any owner who says otherwise is probably a thief.

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Henry Druschel is the Managing Editor of Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @henrydruschel.