“Champagne wishes and caviar dreams.” — Robin Leach
People often want to trace the origin of things. It may just be the full extent of my personal timeline, but I vividly remember the 1980s. Lifestyles of the rich and famous was always lingering in the background. Lotteries started popping up around the country. The Ronald Reagan revolution was in full force. It’s difficult to fully appreciate all the impact that it had on society. So, I’ll try one little corner of the world.
This used to be a baseball blog. So, I often see things through a baseball prism. The players have one of the more vibrant unions in professional sports. The first work stoppages actually began in the early 1970s with some minor skirmishes here and there before then. Every baseball fan knows the Curt Flood story and the story of his sacrifice is told and retold to the point of folklore.
Somehow, in the intervening decade, athletes and the union went from being the little guy fighting for their rights to being greedy cry babies that weren’t satisfied with all they have. People started siding with ownership. People would exclaim that they’d be willing to do anything for a million dollars. Those players are just too greedy.
No one bothered to question how or why our outlook on these things changed so dramatically. Players are well compensated and there is no getting around that, but they are employees. One of the things we used to believe as a country is that when businesses make money then everyone should grow with that business. Yes, the business owner (or stock holders) should benefit, but so should the people that did the work to help the business grow.
Between World War II and 1980 we saw a virtual renaissance for the middle class. The GI Bill helped millions go to college. You heard all kinds of tales about people being the first in the family to graduate from high school and go to college. A progressive income tax helped build perhaps the most vibrant middle class in the entire world.
That was then. The Reagan years and in the intervening decades have taken that all back. Just remember, 2020 is the same distance from 1980 as 1940. While professional sports might not be relatable for most folks, a look at baseball salaries is an interesting place to start. In 2015, the average big leaguer was making 4.25 million per season. In 2021, the average big leaguer was making 4.17 million per season.
More than 60 percent of players at the big league level were making under a million dollars last season. Fans somehow see Mike Trout, Alex Rodriguez, and Albert Pujols and assume they represent the union. They represent the union about as much as the typical owner represents society at large. No one begrudges them their right to earn huge dollars. I’m sure the union members just wish a few more dollars would trickle down to them at some point.
Obviously, MLB is big business and their big business operates like all big businesses operate. The biggest problem in every single labor negotiation is in how to share revenues. The devil is in how they couch it. They want large market teams to curtail their spending so smaller market teams can compete. The owner’s narrative is that those smaller market teams can’t make money. They “obviously” lose money when they try to compete.
At least that is what they want you to believe. Owners have never opened their books to the public. They just want you to take their word for it. Prices continually go up. Team apparel gets more expensive. The price of tickets and the price of parking goes up. Television contracts get more lucrative. MLB has even tapped into the internet in recent years and found ways to maximize it’s value. You could even argue they are ahead of the curve of on that.
Yet, in a sport where revenues are exploding (with the obvious exception of 2020) and have been exploding fairly regularly for the past 30 years, baseball owners want you to believe they are somehow hurting financially. This is supposed to be true while average salaries have actually declined since 2015. They are “losing money” and the players want to bleed them dry. If those greedy players would just take what we give them then everyone would live happily ever after.
It’s a bunch of bullshit. Yet, while they are shoveling this nonsense, fans are usually siding with the owners. Remember, more than 60 percent of players aren’t earning a million dollars and that’s just in the big leagues. The tale of what happens to minor leaguers is much more stark. Yet, most owners today are worth north of a billion dollars. Franchise growth accounts for more than 500 percent annually. If you stop and think about it, none of this adds up.
I know it gets hard to force yourself to care about millionaires fighting with billionaires over huge profits. That’s especially true if you aren’t a fan. Yet, this battle is essentially the same battle as the battle over minimum wage and wages in other industries. The rhetoric is the same. If they raised wages then the costs would swallow them whole or make the cost of a burger outrageous. Neither is true. That’s just what they want you to believe. Champaign wishes and caviar dreams after all.