“Pittsburgh is a baseball town that is being destroyed by a greedy owner.”
That is the first sentence of a petition started on Change.org to encourage Major League Baseball to force Bob Nutting to sell the Pittsburgh Pirates. Since the petition was created on Tuesday, the day after the Pirates traded Andrew McCutchen to the Giants, more than 50,000 fans, or maybe former fans, have added their names to the list.
The petition is just the most organized outlet of Pirates vitriol. There are several Facebook groups calling for fans to “#BoycottTheBucs”, one of which is attempting to organize a rally outside of PNC Park on Opening Day.
It’s nice that fans care so much that they may be willing to stand outside, holding signs to proclaim their disapproval of Nutting’s ownership style. And I certainly do not want to underrate the power of a group of likeminded people willing to unite to accomplish a goal.
But come on, protestors. Bob Nutting does not care about your boycott.
To be clear, the purpose of this article is not to defend Nutting. From a fan’s perspective, he is a pretty bad team owner. It's true that, despite numerous claims that the Pirates ownership would put money into the team when the fans started coming to the ballpark, the team never reeled in that big fish that maybe could have put them over the top.
There were some good years, certainly, but it's hard to argue that this team did everything it could to win when they had a chance to win. And the way the front office has handled the past two seasons, when they continuously claimed that the team intended to remain competitive even though the moves that they made obviously pointed to the contrary, is insulting the intelligence of every person who wears a Pirates cap or purchases a ticket to a ballgame.
Rob Mains from Baseball Prospectus expertly tackled the irony of billionaire owners crying poor. The impetus for his piece was Nutting’s recent quote where he said that a “fundamental redesign of the economics of baseball” is necessary for the Pirates to continually put a contending product on the field. The analogy Mains uses to describe Nutting is just perfect:
“Buying a baseball team and refusing to spend the money to make it competitive is the equivalent of buying a luxury car and complaining because it costs more than an $11.99 bulb to replace a headlight. You knew what you were getting into. If you didn’t want to have cash outflows, you could’ve spent your money differently. If you don’t want to pay up for star players, what’s needed is a re-examination of your motivations, not a ‘fundamental redesign of the economics of baseball.’”
There is a clear depiction of what the ideal sports owner should be: An eccentric billionaire who uses his or her sports team as a way to cavalierly flaunt wealth and compete with other eccentric billionaire team owners. Nutting might not have that same drive.
The idea of a small market baseball team is somewhat factual. Market size does play a significant role in how much money a team has at its disposal. There will always be more willing ticket buyers and TV watchers in Los Angeles or New York than in Pittsburgh just because there are millions more people in those metropolises.
But it’s a myth that small market teams can’t afford to pay star players. The truer version of that statement would be, “small market teams can’t afford to pay star players and make optimal profit.”
That "optimal profit" part is what Nutting is concerned with. And even though Pirates fans may be right to complain that Nutting hasn’t spent enough money to present the best possible product, his ownership group has surely reaped massive benefits.
Kevin McClatchy, partnered with Ogden Nutting, purchased the Pirates for $92 million, about $146 million in today’s currency. When the Nuttings took over as majority owners of the team, and Ogden's son Bob took over as CEO, the Pirates were valued by Forbes at $250 million, 24th in baseball.
In April of 2017, the Pirates were valuated at $1.25 billion. A lot of that had to do with the boom period that all of baseball is enjoying (their valuation is still good for just 17th in the league), but the fact is that anybody who bought into the Pirates in 1996 and stayed until 2018 will be handsomely rewarded for their investment.
That is Nutting’s job, and he has done it well. It's easy to look back at those three winning seasons and question how things might be different were it not for the owners' frugality, but there is no denying that this team is in a better place financially than it was when Nutting took the reigns in 2005. The dude is good at making money.
Considering the $50 million the Pirates will receive this year as a result of Disney acquiring a portion of MLBAM in addition to the regular $20-$40 million that the team will receive from revenue sharing, Nutting could conceivably cover the entire cost of his Opening Day roster without spending any of the ownership’s money. To us, who look at the Pirates shabby roster and the litany of unsigned free agents that could help fill it out, that's utterly reprehensible. But to those privileged enough to have financial stake in the Pirates, it's likely quite the opposite.
(Also, I wouldn’t bet against Nutting to negotiate a gigantic television deal when the Pirates’ current contract with AT&T Sportsnet expires in 2019, regardless of television ratings or attendance. Baseball, just with the sheer amount of televised games, still draws more viewers than any other sport.)
This impasse, greedy owners pitted against disgruntled employees/consumers, is as old as time. It’s the bourgeoisie versus the proletariat. That’s why labor unions exist and why it’s a big deal that the MLBPA has been pushed around by owners in recent CBA negotiations. Bob Nutting is a successful capitalist who will not spend money that he does not need to spend and baseball’s rules do not require him to spend any more than he already is.
What the Pirates are doing now – trading their expensive star players and replacing them with cheaper options – is not much different than what the Houston Astros, who are in a much larger market than the Pirates, had done for years. So even if this petition works and the MLB decides to review Nutting’s ownership, on which grounds would they be able to remove him from his position as CEO?
In 2013, the Astros Opening Day payroll was just above $22 million. In fact, in 2016, one season after the team won 86 games and made the playoffs, Houston's Opening Day payroll still ranked dead last.
Why would the Pirates be vilified for something that the Astros are applauded for? The Pirates spent more money ($537.6M) on players from 2012 to 2017 than the Astros have ($517.8M). How and when these teams spent is important when evaluating the two clubs on a baseball level, but they still put a similar amount of money into their rosters over that period of time.
Frustration is understandable. I’m frustrated, too. PNC Park was built with our tax dollars (at least those of us who live in Pittsburgh) and not only does the park's proprietor have the nerve to charge $11 for a cup of beer, but he also doesn’t even have the decency to try and present us with the best product possible. It sucks.
And if trading McCutchen makes you not want to go Pirates games anymore, then you shouldn't go. There is no reason to go to the ballpark if you cannot enjoy your time there.
But boycotting the Pirates because Nutting does not spend enough is ethically tricky, especially when there are so many other problems with baseball that deserve to be protested. Where are the boycotts in support of minor leaguers who make less than grocery store clerks or the perpetually underpaid amateurs from Latin America?
Why aren't there 50,000 people picketing for the Aramark employees at the ballpark who are not paid a living wage? After all, it's the people selling hot dogs, ushering folks to their seats, and cleaning up after the games who would be the ones having their hours cut due to lapsing attendance, not the millionaires on the field or the billionaires in the luxury boxes.
A phrase popularly used among Leftists states that, "There is no ethical consumption under capitalism." Our existing economic system is based on exploitation, even if that exploitation may vary in degree. Even if a protesting Pirates fan instead uses his or her entertainment dollars on another sports team, a new video game system, or a ticket to a movie, those dollars would still be funding an uneven system that pays workers less than the value that their labor produces.
While having a stingy owner is offensive, it helps to have a little perspective. Baseball is a game where fans are able to spend $20 on a ticket to see two groups of millionaires play a kid's game for teams owned by billionaires. The entire concept is fundamentally stupid, regardless of whether or not those teams paid the right amount of money for the right collection of talent.
So, when baseball season rolls around, don't worry about how many millions of dollars Bob Nutting did or did not spend. There are plenty of reasons to protest: Housing is unaffordable, the ocean may soon contain more plastic than fish, and two world leaders with questionable mental stability are trading jabs about who has the better nukes.
This, however, is not an issue worthy of a picket line.