The current holy grail of sports: cheaper labor with stars, MVPs on rookie contracts

Sports leagues have always had a few teams with a lot of money and a willingness to pay players. See the leaked details of Lionel Messi’s contract. These teams with resources tend to do well as their resources allow them to regularly compete for titles and pay to rectify mistakes.

Photo by Fabricio Trujillo on Pexels.com

But, for the majority of teams, there is a regular pattern now: look for players on the cheap. Keep labor costs down. Do not pay too much for past performance. Sometimes this is due to limited resources, sometimes it is about ensuring profits, sometimes it has to do with salary caps or structures that try to ensure competitiveness.

This can occasionally lead to magical runs. The Leicester City title in 2015-2016 defied all odds. In baseball, teams like Tampa and Oakland regularly compete on the cheap and ship away players when they become too expensive. The Detroit Pistons could win an NBA title in 2004 without a major star. Tom Brady can be found in the sixth round.

But, these are rare. Without stars – who often are paid a lot of money – it is hard to compete year after year. Everyone hopes to strike gold now with a top pick, to find good fortune with home-grown talent, or to find diamonds in the rough missed by others. Hence, we see tanking and massive rebuilds as teams tear it all down and trust they can put together the right combination. This is the holy grail: have young players at a reasonable price and then hope it happens.

If it does not, teams often follow patterns. The Rockies pay to send the best third baseman of his generation to the Cardinals. The Lions and Rams paid big contracts to #1 overall drafted quarterbacks and now they swap them amid disappointment. The Blackhawks won multiple championships but now are burdened by big contracts paid to aging stars. Once these players command big money, it limits what else the franchise can do.

In each league, only one team can win it all each year. This would be true even if everyone spent all they could. But, when that does not happen, it is easy to see the interest in keeping labor and operational costs low as an impediment to winning. Even as the public debates inequality, the inequality in sports is real and affects outcomes and wages.

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