Updated: Jan 22
By Victor Zeidenfeld
Baseball is one of the most popular and engaging sports that offers exciting play each year. Lately, there has been a surprising shift in the willingness of teams to play active roles in free agency. This move may not make the most sense at first glance, but does a superstar player dictate the appealing nature of the team’s brand? Payroll has been pivotal to attendance and jersey sales impacting the growth of a team’s brand, but again, is this a viable way to reshape the prospectsof a sports team?
The Texas Rangers franchise is a primary example of paying superstars to reinvigorate a dormant fanbase. One of the most active teams at free agency, the Rangers have struggled drawing fans to its games in recent years, with attendance dropping by 1,448,919 from the team’s peak year through the present. In 2012, the Rangers had an all-time high of 3,460,280 fans at their home games: it should not be a shock that they were a competitive franchise, within games of a winning a World Series title in that season. Since that exciting run, the Rangers have played postseason baseball a mere three times and never advanced past the division series. Management has played a surprisingly active role in free agency the last two years for a team that is not quite developed. Its 2021 moves were considered failures, and they made the biggest wave in the free agency market this offseason.
Indeed, the most surprising set of moves in the 2021 offseason were facilitated by the Rangers, who committed a sizable amount to two players intended to be cornerstones of the organization. The infield tandem of Marcus Semien and Corey Seager suited up for the Rangers in the 2022 season after signing lucrative contracts. Semien will earn $175,000,000 over seven years and Seager agreed to a ten-year deal where he will earn $325,000,000. The two infielders were under pressure to provide an immediate impact to a subpar team who only won sixty games in the previous season and finished last in the division. The club was a mere eight games better with these additions, and attendance droppeddespite the addition of talent. Semien experienced far less success with Texas. In his previous year with Toronto, Semien was a finalist for MVP and had an all-star season. In Texas, he saw declining stats, and the Rangers ownership did not get the player they were expecting during the offseason. Seager played a bit better with his new club primarily due to his ability to play a full season, but his averages declined and both players did not move the club forward as intended.
The Rangers ownership still wants to help the team leap forward to the postseason after six straight years of missing October baseball. The team signed Jacob deGrom to a five-year contract worth $185,000,000. The move would be a gamble for any team since deGrom has not pitched a full season since 2019, and it is hard to imagine he would make a profound impact on the field if he is not pitching consistently. The Rangers are clearly trying to jumpstart their team and move themselves into the postseason by making such a bold move after another disappointing season. The Rangers’ level of success on the field has been tied to the attendance numbers seen in the club’s recent history. When the Rangers made the World Series, attendance was at a peak while the last few years have been lackluster, failing to maintain the business at the team’s pinnacle in 2012. A great season would raise interest in the team and make it a more profitable club.
The methods of the Rangers are unorthodox and have failed to work so far. Performance was not significantly better, and they invested a lot of money into winning. The business benefits have been invisible up to this point, so why would the Rangers continue this spending spree in 2022? Attendance went down, and jersey sales have been dominated by teams who compete for the World Series consistently and are typically large market teams. For instance, the Los Angeles Dodgers and New York Yankees players often hold the title for most jersey sales, which is no shock. New York and Los Angeles are in the spotlight and the ability for players to showcase their talents in front of a populated area speaks for itself in terms of generating revenue.
Arlington, TX, cannot compete with these large market teams and their storied success. Further, it has had trouble capturing new waves of fans due to the play of the Houston Astros. While Houston has been to multiple World Series since 2017 and won two in that span, the Rangers have experienced the opposite with the teams finishing at opposite ends of the divisional standings. The Rangers are taking a gamble at propelling their team, a feat small market teams rarely achieve and cannot often sustain. The best teams each year usually have the highest payrolls which are easy to afford when playing well and in a large city. The Rangers have attempted to break the norm by establishing themselves as an important player in free agency. So far, the costs have exceeded the benefits, but will a productive season from deGrom, Semien, and Seager reshape how baseball fans and teams view free agency? A successful season will perhaps make more small market, noncompetitive teams inclined to sign players. The Rangers have a chance to make baseball a more equitable game, but this has failed to happen so far. The newest spenders in baseball will have another pressure-filled season—and another mediocre result will push forward the dialogue that small market teams cannot compete with big city teams.
Major League Baseball (MLB) is different from other sports leagues with this spending disparity, where some teams consistently spend minimally as other teams willingly spend a lot in free agency year after year. The MLB has disincentivized excessive spending by implementing a luxury tax on teams who have a payroll exceeding $233 million.The intent is to control this spending gap, but the Texas Rangers have shown that teams in small markets can spend to build a competitive team. Perhaps a price floor would be a more optimal way of promoting equity amongst teams since teams in large markets often do not mind going over the luxury tax. A scenario where all teams are fighting for thechampionship year in and year out is ideal, and the most sensible way to achieve this is by raising the payrolls of smaller teams—and hopefully by modeling the offseason moves of the Texas Rangers.