Who Controls MLB Product?
While many in the media jumped on ump Joe West for his pushing of MLB’s speed of play initiative, Yahoo’s Tim Brown applauded:
Umpires don’t call out teams; they file reports. Umpires don’t personalize events; they follow orders. This one broke rank. West, who happens to be president of the umpires’ union, called ‘em as he saw ‘em. Good for him. Good for baseball. Good for the rest of the umpires, who no doubt view West’s remarks as heroic.
There’s a fascinating issue here: who decides what the product will be? In most business settings, upper level management decides — crumb topping apple pies or pecan pies. Lower level managers and employees certainly influence the nature of the product sold in stores but this is normally because of the costs and difficulties of observing their behavior with precision. These “agency costs” lead to non-compliance with production/sales standards or goals.
In MLB and other sports (see Tail Wags Dog ), however, the problem is not inability to monitor the non-compliant behavior by employees. We easily observe how individual players or teams (such as the Red Sox or Yankees) ignore the league directives. Instead, the non-compliance arises from power struggles , from “political economy.” It’s as if to workers on the pie line just say, “hey, we like more cinnamon than the recipes calls for, and we’re putting more in — what are you going to do?”
The media plays a role in this power play maybe not unique in sports but, at least, uncommon in other settings because the struggle is not about compensation, it’s about the product. (I suppose it could be couched as a “working conditions” situation). The league imposes paltry fines for non-compliance partly based on the expected player, team, and media outcry if they tried to impose the agenda with a stronger arm. In situations these situations, the umps are caught in the middle as the agents of upper management but agents easily broken down by the power play (just like crackdowns on fouling in the NBA and referees) , the referees are caught in the middle
It really puts sports leagues at a disadvantage when trying to alter their “recipe” in ways that they think will help improve consumer interest. Players and managers appeal in the media to the “importance of a particular at bat.” For example, Joe Torre said:
“Yankees-Red Sox is unlike any other thing I’ve ever been a part of,” said Joe Torre, who put in a dozen years of it. The time wasted, he said, isn’t wasted. “You don’t do it to kill time,” he said. “You do it to get somebody out. Another thing, those people sitting in the stands aren’t thinking, ‘I wish they’d get this over.’ I don’t buy that.” Yes, Torre admitted, he’d once been fined for contributing to slow play. “Every single at-bat seems to take on something extra,” he said. “Don’t ask me why. Everything is at that fever pitch. And umpires are, as far as I’m concerned, caught up in the emotion.”
Torre, for all his wisdom, has it backwards. The product is too important to let an individual player or team create their own product. Sure, hardcore fans may care less about the game length in a lot of situations. A marginal viewer, like me, is different. When I turned the Sox-Yankees game on the other night, I thought, I’ll watch the last couple of innings, but after 10 minutes and 5 pitches, I switched off. Control over the nature of the product is maybe the most important decision right for upper level management; when it becomes an outcome of an extended, disorganized, media-injected political process (as with the issue of the nature of the strike zone a few years ago), a business is ripe for problems.