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Why The Club?

In this week's Sports Illustrated (not online), Michael Lewis takes a shot at The Club and its "women's auxiliary," his term for members of the media who defend baseball's status quo in exchange for access to those who operate the teams. Lewis has a dim view of The Club, his term for the group that appears to be managing major league baseball in a drunken stupor.

Lewis took quite a few hits from The Club in 2003. Why? He exposed them by broadcasting to the world how innovative and sensible management could win more games at a fraction of the cost. He showed they were incompetent. Lewis told the truth as he saw it in Moneyball. In return, The Club turned on Lewis, and now it's his turn to fire back.

There is a difference between the shots fired by The Club and the reply from Lewis. The salvos from his critics were, if I can say this gently, a load of ignorant crap. Some of it - particularly a set of Toronto Star articles aimed at J. P. Ricciardi's Moneyball Management of the Blue Jays - was just malicious. But Lewis' retort simply tells us what they said, and in so doing, illustrates without having to say it directly that an unhealthy percentage of them are bozos.

Lewis has done us another favor by writing this article. Moneyball was intended to provide an inside view of management in baseball, and of course it did much more. His SI article documents the unthinking and hostile reaction to Moneyball from the baseball fraternity, many of whom never bothered to read the book. Why the reaction? Why The Club?

Lewis states that "there are many reasons." But if we focus on economic forces, two words suffice: monopoly and protectionism. MLB is a monopoly league, facing no meaningful competition. Teams in the American League, no matter how morbid, are granted the right to host the Yankees and collect the revenue. They are protected by an absolute barrier to entry. If a franchise perpetually underperforms and local enthusiasm wanes, there's a queue of would-be owners willing to pay for the right to move the team to their fair city. The penalty for failure is small. Performance on the operations end is surely influenced by this fact.

The problem is not unique to major league baseball. It is endemic in the economic structure of American sport, which is built on the monopolistic model. The NFL's Cardinals and the NBA's Nuggets, among others, have been asleep at the switch for a decade. In an open system of sporting competition, these teams would have been flushed out of the system and replaced by more ambitious teams.

Two small market clubs, Bolton and Middlesborough, will contest Sunday's Carling Cup Final in Britain. Ten years ago, both teams were toiling in the First Division, the Triple A version of English soccer. As discussed in the post "More on the managerial revolution" below, these clubs feature highly innovative management. Bolton and Middlesborough thought and fought their way to the top. They replaced teams with less thought and less fight. Good for them. If small markets in the U.S. were given the same opportunity, complacency within The Club would be dealt a devastating blow.