MLB baseball: sport or entertainment?

Send in the clowns!

Is baseball, or more specifically, Major League Baseball, a sport, or is it just entertainment? What defines a sport? Does baseball meet that definition? And, lastly, does it matter?

I contend that baseball is less of a sport than it was a half century ago. While MLB argues that it is more successful than it ever has been, I would assert these claims are on commercial grounds and not on athletic ones. However, it seems that no one really cares, as everyone, owners, players, and fans all seem to be getting what they wanted. However, there is a lack of authenticity that gnaws at my soul, the same way that there might be a sphinx and an eiffel tower in Las Vegas, but it ain't the Sphinx nor the Eiffel Tower.

Sport, to me, is a competition, usually physical in nature, governed by well known rules, whose outcome is determined with precision by a well understood scoring algorithm. Typically, it measures the competitors ability at a certain physical skill. It mitigates factors that are not meant to be part of the sport from playing a large role in the outcome of the event. A sporting event may provide immense entertainment value, or be mind-numbingly dull, but still be a genuine sporting event.

A sports champion is determined through a series of contests designed such that over a season of many contests the game-to-game variation of outcomes are minimized and true champion emerges.

Entertainment is the artifact or event that provides the audience with something interesting or amusing. At it's core, it's people communicating to people. It enables the audience to relax, or get its mind off things, or just kill time. It can be intellectual, or just car-crashing rubbish. It doesn't matter, there are people who want to understand the cosmos, and others who want to watch a building blow up. It's all entertainment. When done right, there are people who will pay money to be part of the audience.

Pure entertainment has no losers. All are winners, all go home happy. Everyone's lives are enriched.

So, based on the above, of course, baseball is a sport. It's an athletic competition, played by the Rules of Baseball, and the winner of the game is the team with most runs after nine innings. And if that was all there was than this article would be over. It's when you go beyond the words team, season, and rules that things get messy.

Three criteria I would like to use to measure the amount of authenticity in a sport are competitive balance, championship determination, and rules rationality.

Competitive balance goes towards how much non-sporting factors are eliminated from determining a winner. Championship determination measures how well the season is structured towards determining an authentic champion. Rules rationality asks whether the rules make for an honest competition.

The table below ranks each sport according to my sense of its authenticity and see how it measures up according to my sporting criteria.

Sport Type Entertainment value Competitive balance* Championship determination Rules rationality
Track & field Individual Olympics None Large fields Clock
Weightlifting Individual Olympics Weight classes Large fields Weight
Scholastic Wrestling Individual Local Weight classes Double Elimination Referee
Boxing Individual Hard decline Weight classes Single Elimination Judges
Golf Individual High None Large fields – four major tournements Course
Tennis Individual Medium None Single elimination – four major tournements Court
Alpine & Nordic skiing, biathlon Individual Olympics None Large fields Hill, Course
Gymnastics Individual Olympics None Large fields Judges
Figure skating Individual Olympics None Large fields Suspicious
EPL football Team High outside US Promotion/relegation; money a heavy factor on rosters 38 game season; augmented with various domestic and international side tournaments Diving
NFL football

Team The king College draft Playoffs with final game Adaptive
NHL ice hockey Team Unfairly disparaged Rangers a blight Overbearing playoffs Referee
MLB baseball Team Once the national pastime Arcane business rules; anti-trust exemption; bizarre franchise model Playoffs Differing league rules; umpires; replay
NBA basketball Team Good on TBS Distorted by clans Long playoffs Star system foul calling
College basketball Team March madness Athletic divisions; poor graduation rates in top div Playoffs with final game Lots of flopping in the lane
College football Team Hmm-doggy Athletic divisions; poor graduation rates in top div After using algorithms to determine championship competitors, will now use a beauty contest to determine participants Follows NFL
Professional wrestling Individual Cult Taken for granted it doesn't exist Guy falls; crowd cheers; all go home happy Ref is a part of the show

* All sports have separation by sexes as part of competitive balance. Most have, or are moving to eliminating PEDs (except American football)

In the above chart I have ranked track and field as the most authentic of sports, and professional wrestling as just good old entertainment.

I'm probably overly enamored with the notion of ancient Olympians testing their skills on the plains of Greece. The rules are astounding simple: run faster, jump higher, throw longer. The winner of a contest is unquestioned. No judges, no refs. Athletes represent themselves, there's no team to muck things up. Of course, there would be two things to dirty the purity of track and field. There's doping, sex changes, and robo prosthetics to make people things other than themselves. Then, where, there ought not to be teams, the Olympics makes teams out of countries so we can tell who to root for and who is different from us.

Now while I have seemingly trashed professional wrestling, let me go on record as saying that the competitors are excellent athletes, can do incredible things, and I would never want to step in the ring with one who might have a bone to pick with me. In the same way before I get on to baseball, let me go further and say that not only are baseball players great athletes, but I have no doubt that when one steps on the diamond the performance you see is nothing but each competitor giving nothing but maximum effort to win for their team.

So this has nothing with the individuals who participate in the contests. It's really about the contests themselves. Think gladiator fights or bull fighting for extreme examples.

Also note that with one exception I have put individual sports ahead of team sports for authenticity. This is despite the fact that individual sports can have less competitive balance than team sports. This stands to reason as individuals can only be themselves, while teams can be blends of individuals who are mixed to produce less variation between teams. Sometimes this works against individual sports as you can have a small group winning everything in, say, tennis. However, individual sports have it all over team sports when it comes to the simpleness and clarity of the rules.

It's fair to ask why I have included competitive balance in the first place. If the winner wins fair and square by the rules of the game, does it matter what they might have done otherwise to move the outcome in their favor?

But it does matter, so much that we do lots of things to see that the competition is between equally matched competitors to the greatest extent possible. Men don't play women; high schools are grouped in divisions of similar enrollments; heavyweights to don't fight or wrestle bantamweights. These things make competitions better; they eliminate factors that can skew results so the factors we truly want to measure can decide the outcome.

Also, with teams, there are efforts to distribute the talent among the many teams that play each other. From childhood, we would “pick teams” so that the game might not be a lopsided affair. All of the major North American sports have a draft to distribute incoming talent; some work better than others. In baseball, free agency, and the bizarre baseball franchise business model, has led to severe talent distribution distortions. Do not let other people tell you otherwise! Somebody has to win the AL central division or the second wild card spot. Doing so does not refute the fact that notion that outcomes are heavily correlated to predatory talent practices. Watch and see how many New Yorkers change their views on this once the Dodgers and Angels meet up for the World Series three years running.

Some fans actually don't want competitive balance. Some fans want to be eternal underdogs so they can relish the times they beat the big bad boys from the big town. Some big town fans believe it is their birthright to win championships, because being from a big town somehow makes them better. When the NFL is successful in achieving competitive balance many complain about “parity”. Honestly, there is a weird psychology among fans when it comes to competitive balance. To me, it feels false when teams achieve advantages because they have the economic means to run over their opponents.

Now comes the first great conundrum. I do believe that ball players should get a fair wage, but, believe it or not, I think I also believe in the reserve clause. There's lots of remedies to competitive imbalance in baseball, like luxury taxes, revenue sharing and their ilk, but they have not been overly effective. A hard salary cap would go a long way, but that's not happening in our lives. And by a hard cap I mean something with teeth, like $140 million, not $180 something.

However, the problem with all of these is that they are not free market solutions (is that cheering from the WSJ crowd?) The only time we have had pure unadulterated competition for players contracts is the rare times we have had competing major leagues. Think of the American Association, the American League (before 1900), the Federal League, the AAFC, the AFL, the ABA. That was financial competition. But none of it could last. With the exception of the AL, each upstart league either disbanded or was merged into the older more established league. Even the AL and NL have effectively merged (after 114 years) into the almost nameless MLB, and should rightfully be called the National and American Conferences of MLB.

Baseball is a bizarre perversion of the franchise business model. In a franchise, like a Burger King chain, the store owner is required to operate in the framework of the franchise. This ensures a uniformity of the quality of the product and protects the brand. In return, the store owner is guaranteed that no other Burger Kings will be set up in his neighborhood to compete against him. Baseball operates like a franchise to the extent that teams are not allowed to relocate to a more lucrative market if another team has set up shop there first. Baseball, however, does not protect a team from losing its assets to a team in a more lucrative market. The protection of territorial rights, and the lack of protection of player assets, are both skewed towards team in richer markets.

One way to rectify this, never to see the light of day nor even come up in discussion, is to completely separate the National and American leagues, and to do away with free agency within leagues. A player could jump from one league to another, but not between teams inside the league. There would be no inter-league play. No predatory poaching of players inside your league. Each league would have its own draft, and could compete economically for rookie contracts. Contracts have to be honored; no jumping leagues in the middle of a contract. When a player's contract is up the teams with draft rights to the player in each league could bid on the player's services. Draft rights can be traded or sold within the league. Territorial rights are determined by each league; there are no territorial restrictions between leagues. This would be turning the antitrust exemption on its head – instead of tolerating anti-competitive business practices, the FTC would break up MLB the way it did the phone company.

This may not work because the result may be that one league dominates over the other, clubs in the weaker league jump over to the stronger league, the weaker league diminishes into a minor league. The end result in this scenario is contraction in the major leagues. However, there would still be a framework in place where new ownership could buy the diminished teams, and in a true free market mechanism, build it back up to major league quality.

Champion selection is flawed, and the biggest culprit is not baseball, but the NFL. And the reason is the greatest sports spectacle in the United States, the Super Bowl. I'm going to make the following statement, almost as a postulate, without a vigorous proof of its veracity: Playoffs are the worst way of producing a champion. The best way is round robin schedule among many participants. Long regular seasons minimize the variations in results of individual games. While it is true that any team can beat any other on any given day, it can't be done over a long season.

The best sports for this are the European football leagues. In the EPL, the points leader after 38 games is the Premiership champion. There is no playoff between the top two or four or sixteen teams for the league championship. There are other playoff based tournaments over the year like the FA Cup, League Cup, and the European Cup. They are great to win, provide interest when there is little hope for winning the league, but are secondary (with the possible exception of the European Cup) in team objectives for the year.

What's sad is that baseball used to be that way. There were two leagues, and the team with the most wins at the end of the year won its league's pennant. The World Series is great, but the big achievement was making to the Series.

After watching the Super Bowl morph into the behemoth it is today during the '70s, baseball decided it wanted in on some of that playoff action. Part of it was also the growth in the number of teams. When there was only 8 teams in each league coming in last was bad, but only seven teams were in front of you. As the NL grew to 16 teams, you simply could not have team finishing in thirteenth place, let alone sixteenth place. So here come division championships, which smell a little bit of the trophies that they hand out to everyone in a youth soccer leagues for being a good kid so that everyone is happy.

Then it's the wild card, then the wilder card. Presumably, there's more fan interest and no child gets left behind.

Here's a second outrageous suggestion, based on English football rules: Break each 16 (yes, 16) team league into two eight team divisions: the upper, or first division and the lower, or second division. Limit the number of games between teams across divisions. The upper division is composed of the better teams and the winner of its regular season is the league champ. After each year promote the top two finishers in the second division into the first division and relegate the bottom two finishers in the first division to the second division.

Even putting aside the previous paragraph as fantasy, there is still the second conundrum presenting itself: the playoffs are wildly successful sport business events. Some people don't start watching until the playoffs start. Playoffs provide people with something they desperately crave: the big event, that sense of finality, the knowing that when this event is over, we will have our champion. Compare that with winning the regular season championship with ten days left in the season. No comparison. And the granddaddy of them all is that single game championship, the Super Bowl. It's all that goes on in January: people plan parties around it, advertisers put in overtime to be ready for it, really bad halftime shows (thank the Orange Bowl for this) are planned for halfway through it. It's great, I love it, I'm looking forward to the next one.

But it does not necessarily produce an authentic champion. I'm a Giants fan, but there is no way that the Giants were better than the previously undefeated Patriots in Super Bowl XLVI (love the use of Roman numerals). But it was a great game.

There are those who contend that true champions are only forged in the test crucible of a championship game. What a wonderful myth. On any given day, any team can beat another. But it does make for some great legends. Like Eli is better than Peyton.

But for all of that, baseball looks like angels when compared with the dark hole of sports, college football. Everyone loved to pile on the BCS playoff system for one reason or another. But the one that gets me is the criticism of using computer models to determine a qualifier. I can still see this old blockhead second string running back from SMU yelling on TV “I'm not going to let some computer tell me who the best team in the country!” Now let's be clear about this. The computer itself does not make the selections, the way that HAL closed the pod door on Dave. Six different computer algorithms were used to rank the teams for the BCS. Oh, by the way, an algorithm is used to determine the score of each and every football game. It goes: Score = (6 * touchdowns) + (3 * field goals) + (2 * safeties) + (extra points) Without this algorithm we could just say that the team with the most first downs, or the team with the best looking quarterback is the winner of the game. If you want a complicated algorithm, check out the method for breaking ties at the end of an NFL season. It's complicated, you may or may not agree with it, but it is a set of unbiased rules to differentiate on a close outcome. Now that college football has decided to do away with rules based algorithms for BCS selection the teams can now be ranked the same way that ladies figure skating is decided. If I had a gripe with the previous system, it's that the algorithms used were not made readily available, so that a rational discussion on the merits of each algorithm could be made.

One more element that needs to be mentioned when discussing the authenticity of sport is TV, more specifically, ESPN. ESPN has done a wonderful job of providing people who otherwise would not have a life countless hours of programming to fill the void that is their waking hours. It's not easy filling 24 hours with stuff about sports, so you turn to the highlight reel, which is full of stuff that holds the attention of 7 year old boys. Like home runs, then some more home runs. Then you institutionalize it with that foul abomination, the home run derby. At least its not as bad as what ESPN does to basketball, which is slam dunk, slam dunk, preen for camera, slam dunk.

A third, and final, conundrum. In order for a professional sport to be successful it has to be entertaining. Otherwise, nobody watches and nobody cares. But in order to be successful sporting entertainment, it needs to at least project the appearance of sport. Otherwise it's just a Broadway musical complete with jazz hands.

Baseball is still a good show. But it's more show than sport. Announcers get breathless during the playoffs as if some sort of history is being made. I don't mind people being entertained, just please don't tell me that it was all a fair competition whose sole purpose was to produce an authentic champion.