Dispatch From a Tanker

It’s been tough following the Chicago Cubs the last few years. But of course they’ve been hard to follow for over 100 years now. Yet there’s a certain resignation of late, not only do us fans feel like there’s no chance they’ll win a championship this year, we feel like there’s no chance we’ll be good at all because, if we are, the best players will be traded before the deadline. This ensures great hauls of prospects and good draft picks, but there’s a sense of foul play, like we’re gaming the system. It goes against the spirit of sports to be OK with losing, especially for a multi-year stretch. Wait till next year has become wait till three years from now. It’s one thing to look at a team’s record and July and determine that it has no chance of making the playoffs, then trade players who provide short-term value in exchange for guys with long-term upside. It’s quite another to systemically dismantle a team to build it up again in a new image, sacrificing years in the process. Losing is not news for the Cubs (and pretty much all baseball fans), but in the past it’s been poor management or indifferent owners who are happy to count cash while the team floundered. At least in that instance you can complain about something beyond your control that doesn’t ultimately matter that match. That’s one of many joys in sports.

This management practice, known as tanking, is hardly new, but has been enhanced and enjoyed much wider usage of late. The most recent model is derived from popular business strategies, usually following a takeover or significant change in governance. The idea is that sometimes you’re working with something so flawed it needs to be burnt down, and in burning it down you can more easily acquire the long-term assets needed to build it back up the right way. It’s a bigger problem in the NBA, a league in which a team almost always needs a top-ten player to win a championship. The Philadelphia 76ers have made it very clear this is their strategy, drafting three guys in the last two years unable to compete in the following season and trading two starters during last year’s historically awful run. It is likely that in the next few years the NBA will reform its draft lottery to discourage the process and remove some of the incentive to lose on purpose (the 76ers are fighting these proposals). In baseball, the Houston Astros are the strategy’s poster franchise. They’ve fielded comically bad teams the last few years, way worse than the Cubs even, and maintained a rock-bottom payroll. They’ve shown no interest in adding valuable free agents and have tried all sorts of experiments a contending team would never attempt. While it’s cool I guess that they’re doing these things and some of them will undoubtedly work to reshape the game in good ways, their ballpark draws few fans. And why should it? As a fan it’s tough to get excited about a team that you know won’t compete and you know will be stripped of its best assets midseason.

I have a lot of trust in Theo Epstein, the Cubs president of baseball operations. He put together two championship teams in Boston and many of his players were crucial to last year’s World Series victory as well. However, I’m getting antsy. No only that, but I wonder if, in the next few years as the Cubs rebuilding comes to a close and they’re ready to compete again, I’ll have the same passion for them. I do believe that what they’re doing is the smartest, most rational thing to do from a long-term baseball/business standpoint, but I’m worried the strategy will incur some unexpected losses. Of course sports have always been a business, but being a fan is not the same thing as being a consumer – watching a game is not like getting a new iPhone. There’s such an irrational joy that comes from rooting for a team. The irrationality of it is a huge part of the point. I don’t want to look at it like a product that should maximize my entertainment. It’s like the marketization phenomenon I wrote about a few weeks ago. I don’t want business strategy to dictate everything in my life. Plus it all feels a little boring. There’s less spontaneity, less optimism, and in their place are inevitable and mind-numbing spreadsheets with five-year strategic plans. Maybe that makes more of a certain kind of sense, but it’s less fun.

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