Recent events often make tepid history, and the 3rd installment of Steve Fainaru's "Last Cartel" series is certainly less potent than the first two articles. But it's still incredibly interesting, despite errors and mis-characterizations that plague the piece.
Fainaru continues to err in his characterization of the franchise monopoly game - playing off locations in a bidding war of public subsidies - that is played by MLB. For the 3rd article running, the writer states that the root cause of the problem lays in baseball's antitrust exemption. The exemption may be unique, but the problem exists in all major N. American sports. Need I mention the names of Bud Adams and Art Modell, who spurned their former towns for new mistresses in Nashville and Baltimore? Once public funding was secured for new stadiums in Houston and Cleveland, the NFL dutifully returned, thanks to a cool $1 billion in franchise fees to divide between 30-odd already wealthy men. Did Fainaru have his head in the sand when this was happening? All of our leagues play the franchise monopoly game.
Antitrust enforcement has occasionally expressed concern over franchise location (i.e. in the "Raiders case"), but the monopoly leagues have never been challenged on their strict control over the number of franchises. While limits are necessary, the mechanism to select who qualifies to compete is totally divorced from the question that matters: competence on the field of play.
Fainaru mentions several aspects of Selig's tenure as commissioner, de facto and official, since 1992: integration of the two leagues into a single unit, concentration of decision-making power in the hands of the commissioner, and more extensive revenue sharing among the teams. These are all discussed in terms of the cartel model. But by taking baseball closer to a unitized economic structure, Selig was simply copying the NFL's recipe for growth. More complete integration of erstwhile independent units can yield a better, more successful, and more profitable product without crossing the line of monopolistic practices. Much of what Selig has accomplished in his term as "CEO" - and history will show there's quite a bit - falls into the non-monopolistic category of productive integration.
But while the article does not deliver the punch of the first two installments, Fainaru does what reporters do well - gather facts. The piece focuses on the decision to relocate the Expos, and the efforts of Baltimore owner Peter Angelos to keep the team as far from his franchise as possible.
Fainaru notes that "Baltimore, ironically, was opposed" to the 1971 relocation of the Washington Senators to Arlington, Texas. Ironic indeed, but the economic basis behind the switch is simple: media revenue. Media revenue is the biggest change in the financial structure of sports in recent decades, and Baltimore's games are broadcast in DC, Virginia, and even North Carolina. All of the potential mid-eastern locations - DC, Dulles, and Norfolk - would take a chunk out of Angelos' TV revenues. Local rivals were useful in earlier years. Now they are pests to be exterminated.
The article closes with an interesting set of facts:
Baltimore [has been] quietly accelerating efforts to turn the Orioles into a regional franchise. During this past offseason, the word "Baltimore" was scrubbed from the home dugout roof at Oriole Park at Camden Yards. Auxiliary scoreboards displaying an in-game linescore -- which once represented the Orioles as "BAL" -- now designated the home team as "O'S."
The team's broadcasters had been told in recent years: "We don't refer to [the team on the air] as Baltimore. We refer to it as the O's or the Birds," said Michael Reghi, the team's television play-by-play man until last season.
Even the club's news releases no longer carried a Baltimore dateline and uniformly began, "The Orioles announced today."
The fans who entered Camden Yards -- the thousands who came from the District and Virginia and suburban Maryland to see the Birds -- all were hard-pressed to find any mention of the Orioles' home city.
To those around the team, the message was unmistakable: Angelos was claiming Washington.
Is Washington being used to hike the price in Portland?