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What If?

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I suppose I should start by admitting that I have a split personality – by “day” I am an ardent Twins fan, rooting for my team even when they do something stupid (which is all too often these days, but that’s another topic). At “night,” however, another side of me surfaces and I become one who is passionate about English football – and by football, I mean real football. Not the thing that millions of fans follow in this country that involves a prolate spheroid of artificial animal hide, but a game where it is actually against the rules to use your hands. Yes, I am a devoted fan of the English Premier League and Football League.

With a season that runs from August to May, they are just now getting into their “spring training” mode in preparation for the resumption of football next month. I am, of course, gearing up for the season (just as I do I February for the Twins), and it has me thinking about the two sports in comparison – particularly the business aspects of each league. Thus the topic of this blog entry – what if? What if MLB had the same business structure as English football?

To think about what that would mean, you have to be familiar with how they do business in their sports leagues across the pond. First, there are no franchises awarded by and ultimately controlled by a central league office as we have here. Each football club is an independent business, and the only way you get to play in the top league is if you have worked your way up the ladder (like players moving through our minors) and have earned a spot by success on the pitch (field). There is also the reality of relegation – at the end of the year, the teams who have fared worst end up getting relegated (demoted) to a lower level league, to make room for those who are moving up.

There is also a significant difference in how player contracts are handled. While trades are possible, they are rare. Usually player movement is done through a transfer system, where a purchasing club pays cash for a player on a selling club. Then, the purchasing club has to negotiate contracts terms with the player himself – no play can be forced to move against their wishes. And there is no farm system to demote a player to who is underperforming. If you make a bad call and sign a player who just can’t cut it, you are stuck with that contract until it expires. You can, of course, choose to not play the person, but you do have to pay them.

So what if those elements existed in Major League Baseball? Yes, I know, that is not how our system works and never will be, and I am not even arguing that it should. I’m just having fun speculating, what if? First, it would turn the whole selling-club/buying-club thing that happens each July on its head, because no longer could you equate a poor record with being a selling club. In the EPL, even the clubs near the bottom of the table have an incentive to improve. First, there is no draft, so no jockeying for draft position. Second, no club wants to get relegated, so nobody wants to finish near the bottom of the table (standings). Would we actually be talking about trading Perkins, Morneau, etc. and giving valuable playing time to Hicks, Arcia, Parmelee, etc. if the possible consequences of doing that was we’d be in the International League next year? The European system forces every team to take every game seriously, as if their sporting lives depended on it, because in their system it just might. And fans would know that they would be seeing "meaningful" games, even if the meaning is to just stay up and not be relegated.

It would also eliminate all the games that teams play with their rosters every year, trying to work within the 25-man and 40-man roster rules. No more worrying about who we have to expose to waivers, or how can we find room for a new and valuable addition. No roster limits in the EPL, only what you can afford to pay in salaries. Agents would actually love the new system – they seem to do quite well for their clients across the pond.

There would of course be warts and flaws – I am by no means implying that their system is better than ours. One of the downsides of their business structure is that competitiveness is reduced. Realistically, there are only about 4-5 teams (out of 20) that compete for the title every year, and it is difficult (if not impossible) for smaller market clubs to ever crack into that group. There are many fans who can’t even assuage the pain of 2013 by dreaming about 2015, because they know 2015 will just be the same – a fight not to succeed but just to survive (that should be familiar to people in Houston and Kansas City).

But there is also one benefit that might come from this – an outlet for fan frustration when ownership seems unresponsive. Don’t like what the Pohlad’s are doing? Then start a new ballclub, one owned by the fans. Enter into one of the lower leagues, work your way up through the system, and maybe one day you can take out your frustrations on them on the field. That’s something that does happen in England – think FC United of Manchester, AFC Liverpool, and AFC Wimbledon. All clubs started by fans in protest against ownership, and particularly in AFC Wimbledon’s case eventually meeting the other club on the field of play in a competitive match.

Yes, this is fantasy – this is “speculative fiction.” But then, what’s so wrong with that? What is wrong with asking, “What if?”
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