Sports Sports Feature

Halftime thoughts: Diving into the role of money in sports

Sporting events exhibit arguably some of the rawest and purest manifestations of emotions. Incredible displays of talent are magnified at the forefront of alluring victories, while tears and frustrations are highlighted in the heartbreaking scenes of defeat. However, sitting quietly behind all these enthralling moments is one of the most influential elements in sports—money.

Money has established its place in the world of professional sports, and it sits with high leverage, as it determines so much of what teams are capable of spending on. It is no secret that there are those that can spend for the best, while others are left to spend on the best they can, forging a considerable disparity between the big and the small. But one question persists: just how much success can money buy?

Spend a million to play like a million

In the world of professional sports, every team runs like a business. First, they make money—sports teams from all around the world generate their pots of wealth through different means, such as ticket sales, merchandise, player transfers, and sponsorships. When executed well, these inflows often lead to copious amounts of funds for a given team. And then, they spend it even better—to earn glory, to build their franchise, and in a paradoxical cycle, to accrue even more money.

The expenses that sports teams make in building, maintaining, and improving their squads tend to gain widespread attention in the public sphere. In 2017, football team Paris Saint-Germain (PSG) dug deep into their pockets to take the famous Neymar from another big-name club, FC Barcelona, for a fee of EUR 222 million—the most expensive transfer in the sport’s history—with the team still continuing to reap the rewards. PSG currently sits on top of Ligue 1 in France, and after 10 appearances this season, Neymar already holds eight goals and four assists to his name. PSG is just one of the many successful franchises whose big bucks gave them headway to tell this kind of story.

Looking closely into the sporting world will bring a certain pattern to light—a pattern that exposes the discrepancy between the biggest and smallest spenders. For instance, Formula 1 (F1) is a sport so financially competitive; over the years, it has seen many eras of clear-cut dominance from certain teams, largely due to budgets. Mercedes’ F1 team is renowned for claiming the last six world championships after spending close to half a billion dollars each year. Meanwhile, with the lowest budget in 2019, the Williams F1 team struggled throughout the season and finished dead last after shelling out only USD 132 million.

What is true in Formula 1 is also true in many other team sports because the philosophy of spending big to make it big has proven to work many times over. But, with the top teams spending for the best in the business, the rest of the pack are left to grapple and bank on other factors to stay competitive.

Bridging the gap

The money problem in sports is indeed a very tough obstacle that smaller teams have to overcome, and it is one that several teams and leagues do not simply take with a grain of salt. Time and time again, money has been pored over from many different angles in hopes of finding a solution to the issue, or in an attempt to combat the growing inequality that affluence has fostered.

Last October, F1’s governing body, the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile, announced their plans for significant changes to come for the sport in 2021. For the first time in history, the sport will be implementing a strict budget cap, restricting teams to spending a maximum of USD 175 million per year—a rather far cry from Mercedes’ usual lofty budget, veering closer to the Williams team’s expenditures. This cap applies to the expenses for the performances of the teams’ cars, but does not yet address expenses for wages and marketing; nevertheless, it is a firm step forward in cutting down the growing gaps and creating a more equal starting point for racers.

F1 has made a pivotal decision to directly target the matter of wealth, but the same cannot be said for many other sports, leaving teams to their own devices. Major League Baseball, for example, has one of the biggest financial differences between their high and low-spending teams. In the recently-concluded season, the Boston Red Sox sat on top of the money game with their USD 224.1-million payroll, far above the Tampa Bay Rays and their USD 61.9-million payroll. This kind of disparity has remained evident throughout the league’s history—but it does not always speak for the competition’s outcomes.

Back in 2002, financial constraints indeed proved to be a challenge that the Oakland A’s had to overcome, with the team’s USD 41-million payroll—a meager amount compared to the highest-paid team, the New York Yankees, who enjoyed a payroll of USD 125 million. The A’s General Manager Billy Beane’s unconventional spending on undervalued players enabled the team to shatter expectations and defy the odds set by their small budget. That year, they broke the then-American League record with a 20-game win streak, and reached the Division Series—equivalent to the tournament’s quarterfinal stage—alongside the deep-pocketed Yankees.

Though the A’s didn’t make it past the Division Series, they nevertheless made history that year and continued to do well in succeeding seasons. Just last year, they finished second in the American League West Division, though they failed to make it past the Wild Card round after losing to the Rays. Their remarkable journey further inspired the storyline of the highly-acclaimed book-turned-movie entitled Moneyball.

Evidently, money is highly influential and remains a prominent source of inequality in sports. But, even with its power, the fact remains that money can never guarantee success—and to me, that is where the true essence of sports lies.

There is one line from Beane in Moneyball that I have always been drawn to: “How can you not be romantic about baseball?” I find that this truth resonates across all sports. Money will somehow always be married to professional sports—the two are inseparable things—but I doubt it could ever overthrow the romance that exists within victories and defeats.

Perhaps the playing field will never truly become level for as long as money sits on its high and mighty throne. However, while money has the command to draw out the path that a team may take, it cannot stand in place of the precise in-game moments that define a team’s fate, and ultimately, cannot transcend the passions and emotions that emerge at the finish line.

Annika Cañiza

By Annika Cañiza

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