Saturday, January 28, 2012

The Plateau?

I clearly remember, as a child, being frustrated when hearing about how little things used to cost. It was incomprehensible that the comic books I was paying seventy-five cents for used to go for a nickel or a dime apiece, that a pack of baseball cards could be had for a few pennies, or that coins alone could get you into the movie theater. Of course, nobody told me how little the average income was in those days, so I had a rather flawed understanding of how inflation worked. The result is that I had a vague sense that things had gotten harder over the years, and I was nostalgic for an existence that nobody ever experienced.

But this melancholy was paired with a weird kind of optimism. I didn't see things getting any worse. Particularly when comic book prices were raised to a buck apiece, I saw this as a logical telos. The dollar was the central signifier--the same price that one paid for a fundraising candy bar. It wasn't conceivable that this central unit could be exceeded--no way would they inconvenience a kid to shell out a coin on top of the piece of paper they were already asking!

Now as an adult, I still find myself in a weird place. I clearly remember comic books costing less than a dollar, but now that they sell for three or four bucks a pop, it scarce seems possible that this was ever the case. I have a hard time believing that I once filled up my car with gasoline for about a buck a gallon, but I seem to remember having done that (and taking it for granted that it would always be about that much). And I have a clear memory of a point in time when no baseball player was paid three million dollars in a single year.

Actually, I can clearly recall buying a baseball magazine that listed every player in the "two million dollar" club (around 20 or so if I recall correctly), analyzing whether they were "worth it." Then I recall an offseason where Kirby Puckett and Rickey Henderson each broke the three million barrier. In hindsight, it's incredibly hard to believe that Minnesota and Oakland paid out the biggest contracts in all of baseball. It's just bizarre that Kansas City made the biggest splash in the free agency market in 1990, giving them the biggest payroll in all of baseball (they would end up with horrible returns on their financial investments).

Oakland upped the ante again by giving Jose Canseco over five million dollars per year in 1990. I remember hearing stats guru Bill James on the radio saying: "I've predicted that by the end of the decade we'll see a $10 million dollar player. We are only a few months into the decade, and we've already got a $5 million dollar guy." I still didn't buy his prediction... and by the end of the decade we had seen a $20 million player. Contracts have been signed that allow players in one year to eclipse the entirety of that 1990 Kansas City payroll.

But I find a couple of interesting aspects of the current financial status of professional sports. First, inflation over the last decade has been slight. Players aren't making all that much more now than they were 10 years ago, and certainly the percentage increase has slowed drastically in comparison to the increase over the course of the previous decade.

Second, even though players are making exponentially more money than they were 20 years ago, I perceive that the public has grown more content with exorbitant salaries. To be sure, most people would assert that athletes are overpaid (even though by objective standards they are not--knee jerk reactions don't consider the revenue that they create). But I'm not hearing as many complaints as I used to. I remember going to a Milwaukee Brewers game in the mid-1990s, where a friend of my dad's turned to him and asked "Can you believe these guys make more money in a year than you and I will make in our lifetime?" I remember an occasion in the early 2000s when I witnessed a guy turn down a free ticket to a Brewers game with the excuse that "they make too much money."

I'm not suggesting that such a sentiment doesn't exist at all anymore, but I'm convinced that it is less pervasive. It is as if we needed time to get used to the fact that athletes make a lot of money relative to most people, but now that this has been the status quo long enough, it is less objectionable. We are resigned to the present situation, even as we wistfully but vaguely hold the notion that it wasn't always this way. And at the same time, we seem to have the tacit understanding that salaries have plateaued. As far as I know, Bill James isn't predicting the emergence of a $50 million man. It all reminds me a little bit of when comic books cost a dollar.


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