Of the three major sports leagues, only one has entered its current labor negotiations without doomsday prophecies emanating from the team owners. It's baseball, the one that does not have a salary cap.
The other two, the NFL and NBA, supposedly have protection from runaway player contracts, yet both claim that labor costs are strangling them. Major League Baseball is cruising toward a new labor agreement when the current one expires in December, while the two capped-leagues are facing the possibility of a shutdown for at least part of next season.
Yet cranks continue to argue that baseball desperately needs a salary cap, if only to resolve a dangerous competitive imbalance. In reality, baseball has experienced more trophy turnover than the two other leagues, especially the NBA. Over the past 10 years, baseball has produced nine different World Series champions, the NFL seven Super Bowl winners and the NBA just five crowned franchises.
Only seven NBA teams have won a title over the past 31 years, 26 of which featured a salary cap. That's two fewer championship franchises than MLB produced in 10 years. If that's what a balanced, salary-capped league looks like, lopsided competition doesn't exist.
Granted, the NBA depends so heavily on transcendent stars that acquiring a Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant or Tim Duncan will let teams gain a near stranglehold on the championship. The Larry Bird Exception, which allows circumvention of the salary cap to help teams hold onto superstars, reinforces that advantage.
There's a problem with that excuse, though. The decade before the introduction of the salary cap was far more competitive than the years that followed. Since the cap arrived in 1984-85, six clubs have won the NBA title. In the 10 years before, as the players fought for and gained free agency, seven clubs won it all. The champs included Golden state, Portland, Seattle, Washington and Philadelphia, none of which has won a title since. The Lakers and Celtics, which entered the Bird-Magic Johnson era in those years, split the five other crowns.
The NBA cap levels the payroll field enough to enable a well-run, small-market, Duncan-blessed club like the Spurs to join the sports equivalent of OPEC. In the NFL, the cap prevents Jerry Jones from owning the Lombardi Trophy. It does not guarantee overall competition.
In baseball, Red Sox principal owner John Henry just revealed that he was fined $500,000 for a 2009 interview in which he criticized MLB's revenue sharing.
"Change is needed and that is reflected by the fact that over a billion dollars have been paid to seven chronically uncompetitive teams ... " Henry told the Boston Globe. "Who, except these teams, can think this is a good idea?"
In some respects, he had an excellent point. The Pirates and Marlins absolutely hoard money rather than investing in their rosters. But the fact is that two of baseball's "chronically uncompetitive" teams -- the Reds and Rangers -- made the playoffs in 2010, and Texas went to the World Series.
Who in MLB really seems hopeless? The Marlins are a mess now, but they won two World Series in their first 11 seasons. The A's won a playoff series in 2006. The Blue Jays finished eight games over .500 last year and have been at least 10 games over three times in the past decade, yet haven't made the playoffs since winning the World Series in 1993. One could argue that they'd benefit from a salary cap, inhibiting their American League East rivals, but they've done better than the Orioles, who started heading south in 1998, when they had the biggest payroll in the game.
The Pirates and Royals are truly disheartening, but no more so than the Clippers in the capped NBA and the Lions in the capped NFL. A salary floor would be more useful in motivating Pittsburgh's management. Kansas City's payroll exceeded the Padres' and Rangers' last year and virtually matched the Rays'. Of those three, only the Padres didn't reach the playoffs. Try telling the World Series-champion Giants that San Diego is "chronically uncompetitive."
Henry, to his credit, made a plea only to reform revenue sharing, not to initiate a salary cap. Baseball's fight for a cap was fought and lost forever in 1994, when a labor showdown canceled the World Series. Underfunded Montreal was the best team in the game when the season ended prematurely. If the owners had really cared about competitive balance, they would have done anything to keep those Expos on the field.