The Secret of Bud Selig's Success

As I often demonstrate, it's easy to bash Bud Selig. But he's doing something right: most people with his track record aren't guaranteed employment through 2006 at a reported $4 million/year. Unfortunately, the Commissioner's greatest skill is also the source of MLB's most serious problem.

That skill/problem is that Selig still thinks like an owner. From September 9, 1992, when he was named acting head of MLB after Fay Vincent's forced resignation, until his formal election as Commissioner on July 9, 1998, Selig was simultaneously running the Milwaukee Brewers. He still owns about 35% of the Brewers (held in a trust), while his daughter runs the team.

Many critics of Selig's tenure retain a romantic vision of the Commissioner as some sort of philosopher-king looking out for The Best Interests of Baseball even when those interests conflict with those of the owners who hire him. The experience of Happy Chandler, Bowie Kuhn and Fay Vincent shows the limits of this view. But the Commissioner is uniquely positioned to act in the collective interest of MLB as a whole, whatever that effect may be on individual teams – and Selig has abdicated this responsibility.

Selig came to power during a nasty dispute over revenue sharing that divided teams into large-market, middle-market and small-market camps. After reopening the collective bargaining agreement, the owners spent more than a year fighting one another before they could even formulate a proposal to the players. That proposal allowed large and small market owners to agree that revenue sharing was a great long as the money to be shared ultimately came out of the players' pockets. When the players objected, the final third of the 1994 season was doomed.

The revenue-sharing plan ultimately adopted contained a fatal flaw: it did not require recipients to reinvest the money in their teams. When the owners of the Expos and Twins realized that the revenue-sharing money allowed them to lock in a profit so long as they didn't try to compete, they ensured that revenue sharing would not fulfill its intended purpose. Rather than provoke a confrontation by forcing these clubs to use the money properly, Selig & Co. would rather pay them to go away. That won't solve anything; it doesn't even remove the incentive for Tampa Bay or Kansas City to adopt the same strategy.

Selig takes every opportunity to lament "competitive imbalance" as only the owner of a bad small-market team can. What other business would allow, let alone encourage, its chief executive and most visible spokesman to disparage its product with remarks like "At the start of spring training, there no longer exists hope and faith for the fans of more than half of our 30 clubs"? MLB has more competitive balance than any of the other major team sports, and as the results of our prediction contest show, handicapping a season before spring training is a wildly uncertain venture. Selig's remarks can only reduce interest in baseball and depress attendance in the very markets he's trying to help.

George Steinbrenner is the only owner quoted in the press release announcing Selig's extension. Steinbrenner declares, "it is absolutely imperative now more than ever that we have stability and leadership, both of which Bud Selig offers us more than anyone else I can think of."

What does it mean when the owner with the most to lose from any attempt to improve "competitive balance" praises Selig's "leadership"? Implementing the Blue Ribbon Panel recommendations – greater revenue sharing, a tax on higher payrolls, enforceable minimum-payroll rules, unequal distribution of central fund revenues – would reduce the Yankees' financial advantage over smaller-market clubs. Contraction preserves that advantage. For Steinbrenner, a one-time check for $15 million to save himself years of subsidizing the Twins and Expos is a great deal. For Kansas City and Tampa Bay, who write that same check but reap no savings, it's a terrible deal – but they're so blinded by the prospect of more money from the central fund that they don't seem to care.

If MLB is serious about addressing Selig's cherished "competitive balance problem," it must realize that there is no solution that doesn't involve taking more money from the Yankees and Dodgers and giving it to the Royals and Pirates. At the same time, recipients must be compelled to spend that money to improve their teams. Unfortunately Selig, like his fellow owners, would much rather demand that other people solve their problems for them. It's much easier to tell local governments "subsidize your team or you'll lose it," or insist that the players work for less money than the owners are willing to pay them, than to make the tough choices necessary to resolve these issues.

But if Selig won't force the owners to address problems of their own creation, the least he can do is to stop whining and shut up. The most he can do is to resign in favor of a knowledgeable outsider, and insist that this outsider be given the necessary authority to solve anything the owners themselves describe as a problem. Don't hold your breath. Mortality tables suggest that the 67-year-old Selig is likely to live another 15 years, so look for a new Commissioner around 2016.

Copyright © 2001 Doug Pappas. All rights reserved.
Originally published in the Fall 2001 issue of Outside the Lines, the SABR Business of Baseball Committee newsletter.

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