Thursday, June 08, 2006

Some Baseball Owners Can Learn from Mark Cuban

by Scott Silversten

With Memorial Day behind us, the pennant races are unofficially underway. However, for the next two weeks, the baseball stories of mid-June must step aside on the front pages of sports sections across the country for a bigger event...the NBA Finals.

Sorry soccer fans, the World Cup may be the world’s biggest sporting event, but in the United States, it’s just not that big of a deal.

The NBA Finals, on the other hand, is a big deal, and this year’s match-up of the Dallas Mavericks and Miami Heat should have a great amount of intrigue. Making the series even more fascinating is a man who will not take one shot, grab one rebound or commit one foul.

And that man is Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, who within the sports universe, is most definitely a maverick.

Cuban has been fined approximately $1 million in his 6 ½ years owning the Mavericks, but the way he has poured money into his franchise while making it his priority to win basketball games makes him an easy person to root for over this upcoming fortnight.

To paraphrase an axiom that Cuban has voiced over the years: There are two types of sports owners, the owners who want to make money and the owners who want only to win, even if that on-court success is harmful to the financial bottom-line.

Now, let’s be honest about something...Cuban and the Dallas Mavericks are not losing money. Cuban shelled out $280 million for the franchise in 2000, and in 2004, Forbes Magazine valued the team at $374 million. With the Mavericks in the finals for the first time, and with American Airlines Center widely regarded as having the best game presentation of any arena in the NBA, there is no doubt that Cuban is not pouring his own money into the team for a chance to win championship rings.

However, the question that must be asked is this: Should owners be required to spend their own money to improve their sports franchises, even if those franchises can’t support themselves by generating enough revenue through traditional avenues?

And while this question applies to some franchises in all sports, for the purposes of this discussion, let’s focus on baseball.

Teams like the Pittsburgh Pirates, Florida Marlins, Tampa Bay Devil Rays and Kansas City Royals do not generate enough money to match many of their competitors. In fact, those teams argue they consistently lose money. Meanwhile, fans complain the owners aren’t doing enough to bring a “winner” to their municipality.

Honestly, is this asked of any other business? If the local store is losing money, but it is considered a town institution, should the family that owns it pour their life savings into running a failing operation?

Granted, the money we are talking about is much greater, but it’s the same basic principle. Teams like the Marlins and Royals need to be able to survive on their own merit. Even owners with the best of intentions cannot be asked to waste millions and millions of dollars on an annual basis.

This also opens another baffling question: Don’t teams that are losing money each year eventually have to reach a point in which they are forced to fold? Or is the Major League Baseball Players Association correct...are owners cooking the books?

Sports league such as MLB and the National Basketball Association are private companies, but if they are truly public trusts, it’s time for owners to open their books to the general public. If the Royals can’t survive financially, it’s time for David Glass to prove that to his constituency.

It is a sad but true fact that in many cities across the country, NFL mini-camps garner more attention this month than the local baseball teams. And that’s a testament to the NFL’s financial structure, in which every team is healthy and, with the right decision-making, has every bit of the chance to compete for a title as teams in bigger markets.

The same cannot be said of baseball. When Bud Selig called the success of the Minnesota Twins an “aberration” a few years back, he was essentially correct. In Oakland, the Athletics’ recent run of strong seasons is a credit to General Manager Billy Beane and the organization, but even Beane’s teams cannot withstand the loss of marquee players on a yearly basis.

Baseball long ago ceded its standing as the national pastime to the NFL, but the interest gap continues to widen as fans of small-market ballclubs realize their season does not extend much past Memorial Day. The addition of the wild card, and the fact it keeps at least some of these teams in a playoff race, has done more to save baseball than Cal Ripken Jr. or Mark McGwire could have ever hoped to accomplish with their individual feats.

Cuban has said publicly that if the opportunity presented itself, he would strongly consider purchasing either the Pirates or Chicago Cubs. As baseball fans, we can only hope that becomes a reality.

Scott Silversten's column, "Age of Reason", appears every Thursday

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"I've had a pretty good success facing Stan (Musial) by throwing him my best pitch and backing up third base."
- Carl Erskine