One Way to Save Baseball: Make Everyone a Free Agent Every Year
ESPN’s Sam Miller just wrote a series of really fantastic pieces detailing three radical ways to change and revitalize Major League Baseball. All of his ideas – like allowing teams to bid for home games or creating a March Madness style playoffs – are worth reading. But to me, one especially stood out: paying players on commission. Miller’s underlying argument is hard to dispute: MLB’s contractual system often punishes high achieving younger players and rewards players no longer providing commensurate value to their teams. Paying players based on their actual, annual performance would be fairer to the players, teams and fans.
But what if we went a step even further and made every player a free agent after every season?
Imagine how much more exciting the off season would be if each team were constructed anew every winter. Players could choose to stay with their team – they could even choose to take a discount if they really want to be there. Continuity is possible but isn’t essential – in fact, the more chaos, the more exciting. Teams can decide what metrics to use to pay players, eliminating the fairness debate. But more importantly, every team would be competitive and viable the day the World Series ends, every year. In other words, it’d be more fun.
If your team had a shot every off season to sign Jose Altuve or Aaron Judge or Mookie Betts, imagine how much engaged you’d be. If your team risked losing Mike Trout or Bryce Harper or Chris Sale, imagine how much more focused you’d be. What do people love to talk about most on sports radio? Not the plays or outcome of any specific game. They love potential – trades, signings, draft picks. They love what could be. Let’s give it to them.
If baseball weren’t facing an existential crisis of an aging fan base (according to CNBC, the average fan is a 53-year old white male, compared to 47 for NFL fans and 37 for NBA fans; according to Street and Smith, the average MLB fan is actually 57), a move this radical may not be necessary. But sports don’t follow the laws of nature. None of them have to exist. They’re as viable as their popularity. That’s it. I’ve brainwashed my kids into loving baseball (as Mets fans, no less) but my 9-year old son just told me that only two other kids in his class even like baseball. And we live in New York City where at least one team (unfortunately, not the one I root for) is consistently viable.
I love baseball more than every other sport combined. I want it to be around and popular for a long, long time. It’s hard to look at all of the indicators and feel confident that’s going to happen. That’s why (I think) Sam Miller wrote his series of radical ideas in the first place – to spark conversation and underscore the need for change. There are a million reasons the MLBPA wouldn’t like annual free agency (even though the players fought for the right to be free agents in the first place) and a million more why successful teams won’t want to risk losing their players (of course, players presumably would prefer to play for better teams and better cultures so good teams are well positioned to retain talent).
But if you take Miller’s already persuasive argument around aligning compensation and performance and add in a way to make the off season wildly more exciting and make each team potentially viable and competitive each season, you may have something really worth considering.