Seriously, money isn’t everything

Times Staff Writer

Money can’t buy you love. But how about a World Series ring?

It’s a timely question for sports fans given that the New York Yankees, Major League Baseball’s highest-paid team with a $194.6-million payroll, are poised for a run at their 27th World Series title.

Not to mention the cross-town New York Mets, who are building a new ballpark and have the National League’s top franchise payroll of $101.1 million. And, at the other end of the payroll spectrum among the eight playoff teams are the small-market Minnesota Twins ($63.4 million) and Oakland Athletics ($62.2 million).

Sports economists generally agree there is some correlation between the size of a sports franchise payroll and the likelihood of playing in the postseason.


“Let’s say I’m putting my pension fund into a portfolio of what I think are going to be successful sports teams,” said Rodney Fort, an economics professor at Washington State University.

“You know what I’m going to be buying -- Yankees stock, Lakers stock, maybe New England Patriots stock.... I’ll spread it out over what are known to be the blue-chip teams.”

But Fort and most sports economists argue that massive payrolls aren’t the determining factor when it comes to playing into the fall.

“If 20% of the variation in a team’s winning percentage can be explained by payroll, then there’s still 80% left over, which is a good-sized chunk,” said Smith College economist Andrew Zimbalist, author of “In The Best Interests of Baseball? The Revolutionary Reign of Bud Selig.”

Payroll matters less than other factors such as smart managers who can squeeze more wins out of their ballclubs and plain old luck, according to David J. Berri, a Cal State Bakersfield economist and coauthor of “Wages of Wins: Taking Measure of the Many Myths in Modern Sport.”

“The story has been greatly exaggerated when it comes to payrolls and wins,” Berri said. “Sure, it’s statistically significant, but there’s not a great deal of predictive power, which is the crucial point. The argument people make is that payroll dictates wins, but I just don’t see that in the data. I mean, the Yankees won two more [regular-season] games than the Tigers, and now they’re the prohibitive favorite?”

Yet there is plenty of ammunition for fans in small markets where the postseason never seems to arrive.

Baseball fueled the big/small debate in 2000 with a report from a blue-ribbon panel that warned of “large and growing competitive disparities” that threatened to cause a “chronic competitive imbalance.” Panelists cautioned that “proper competitive balance will not exist until every well-run club has a regularly recurring reasonable hope of reaching postseason play.”

Fat-wallet theorists this season pointed to the Florida Marlins squad, which opened the season with total payroll of $14.9 million, the lowest in MLB, and finished 19 games behind the Mets. Only two Marlins earned more than $1 million, and the vast majority earned less than $400,000. In contrast, the Yankees began the season with 22 players who would earn more than $1 million and a handful who each would earn more than the entire Marlins roster.

Sports economists noted that the Yankees moved into the postseason largely because of strong seasons by mega-millionaires such as Alex Rodriguez, Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, Jason Giambi and Johnny Damon, plus stellar play by Robinson Cano and Chien-Ming Wang.

Cano and Wang each were paid less than $400,000 for the regular season, sparking an argument whether George Steinbrenner’s cash-rich baseball brain trust was smart, lucky or both for identifying the two talented players.

As Washington Nationals President Stan Kasten recently told a New Jersey newspaper reporter, “Smart beats rich all the time ... but if you can be rich and smart, you’re going to have a much greater chance of success.”

Zimbalist, for one, believes that big-market teams with big payrolls commanded a stronger advantage during the early 1990s. He’s not sure why, but that edge has been dulled over the years.

He suspects that the Yankees and a handful of other teams with hefty payrolls are caught up in a spiral created by the decision to hire older players at the end of their careers.

“Their performance falls as they get older, but their salary doesn’t,” Zimbalist said. “So maybe they are stuck in a spiral that feeds upon itself.”

That said, sports economists tend to believe that big-market teams, and, in particular, the Yankees, enjoy a built-in advantage because of where they are located.

“I enjoy the New York Metropolitan Opera, and I think I deserve that quality of performance here in Pullman,” said Fort, the Washington State professor. “But the flat economic reality is that we can’t come up with that kind of money to have that quality of opera in this town. And there’s no difference between that scenario and baseball.”

And for this postseason? The Yankees typically have the highest payroll, but they haven’t won the World Series since 2000.

“Sports is a wonderful place, full of tons of uncertainty,” Fort said. “Some small-market team -- a Minnesota, a Kansas City, a Cleveland or a Miami -- is always going to be in the position of going to the postseason ... and the Yankees don’t always win, just as the price of a blue-chip stock doesn’t always go up.”



Bang for the buck

The Minnesota Twins were the most cost efficient of this year’s playoff teams, spending less than one-third as much per win as the New York Yankees.

Team / Payroll*: Cost-per-win/(Wins)

New York Yankees / $194,663,079: $2.01 mil. (97)

New York Mets / $101,084,963: $1.04 mil. (97)

Dodgers / $98,447,187: $1.12 mil. (88)

St. Louis Cardinals / $88,891,371: $1.07 mil. (83)

Detroit Tigers / $82,612,866: $870,000 (95)

San Diego Padres / $69,896,642: $794,000 (88)

Oakland Athletics / $62,242,079: $669,000 (93)

Minnesota Twins / $63,396,006: $660,000 (96)

*On Opening Day

Sources: Cot’s Baseball Contracts, Los Angeles Times