Art and commerce have always been linked. Sports, and the business of sports, are inseparable. For sports fans like me, this produces two dichotomies.

  1. Understanding the business side of sports is crucial to understanding sports, and yet this understanding does not make me enjoy sports any more - in fact, if anything, the more I understand, the less I enjoy.
  2. The most important and enjoyable figures in sports are the players, but even a basic understanding of the economic realities of any sport serve to align my incentives as a fan with the owners, not with the players.

Let’s look at the latest local example, the Minnesota Twins signing Byron Buxton to a seven-year contract, to illustrate what I mean.

Watching Byron Buxton play baseball is an enjoyable experience, both aesthetically, and as a rooting interest. He plays for my favorite baseball team, and he is one of the most exciting players I can remember. He may be the fastest player in the league. Over the past two seasons, he hit thirty-two home runs and twenty-six doubles in just one hundred games. He’s about to turn twenty-eight years old, the prime for most baseball players. He helps my team win games and he is fun to watch. I want him to stay on my team and I wish the team had twenty-five more players like him.

Considered narrowly, I am entirely and completely on Byron Buxton’s side, when it comes to his contract negotiations. I really don’t care how much money he gets paid; if he signs for a thousand dollars or a billion, it doesn’t make any difference to me, as long as he continues to play baseball for the Twins. Nothing changes in the money that comes out of my pocket. If he wants to get paid more, then I say he should get paid more.

Widen the scope, even to the still fairly narrow scope of the contracts of all of the other players on the team, and that view begins to change. Even at this narrow level, I understand that the team’s goal overall is to maximize the number of good baseball players it puts on the field, and that one of the limits on this is financial.

At this still-narrow view, my incentives have already stopped lining up with Byron Buxton’s. I want the Twins to not only have Byron Buxton but also have many other good players. Even when I get to the end of the above paragraph, where I wish for twenty-five more Byron Buxtons, I understand that the Twins will not be able to sign twenty-five more players to seven-year contracts worth nine-figure sums.

More than that, if I want to understand anything about the team as a whole - the players that they sign, and choose not to sign, and try to sign but fail - I have to understand far more than just that basic “money doesn’t grow on trees, son” truth. I have to understand not only the benefits but the risks of this contract, like Buxton is often hurt, and in the next 2-5 years his physical gifts will begin to diminish. Already I like him less! This sucks!

A large part, perhaps the largest part, of “analysis” of sports is occupied with these kinds of questions. The on-field and on-court and on-ice breakdowns are still there, but they are often swamped by management role-playing. What are the Vikings’ needs in the draft? Can the Wild trade for Jack Eichel and stay under the salary cap? Which expiring contracts might the Timberwolves target?

Thinking about sports in this way is interesting, even enjoyable, on its own. It certainly adds an intellectually satisfying puzzle on top of the basic experience of watching a bunch of people in colorful costumes run into each other. It’s fun to decipher the complicated systems that underpin the economic calculus that governs what happens out there between the lines. The on-field and the off-field parts all fit together as parts of a larger whole.

This doesn’t make it more enjoyable, though, at least not for me. The only enjoyment that it’s possible to derive from this is when a player is underpaid, in the same way I would say, “Wow, that burrito was great, I can’t believe it only cost three dollars.” Wild center Ryan Hartman has scored twelve goals in twenty-one games this season, an astonishing return for the team’s eighth-highest-paid forward. Great deal for the Wild! Terrible deal for Hartman! Because my incentives (to have many good players on the team, given the salary cap) match up with the front office’s incentives, not Hartman’s, I guess I can feel good about this? “Boy,” I can say, “the Wild sure got one over on the rest of the NHL, by paying less than the market value for this player!”

This feels instinctive, yet morally bereft. Hartman’s the one out there scoring goals, not GM Bill Guerin or owner Craig Leipold. I’m cheering for Hartman, not the salary cap. And yet it feels right to be even more satisfied with those goals, because I understand just what an extra benefit they provide to the team, because I understand the salary-cap portion of this particular puzzle. It’s even worse when salaries aren’t involved; caring about this sort of thing with college sports means being dunked into the sordid world of recruiting. If you think having opinions on other people’s paychecks feels soulless, imagine having opinions on the scholastic choices of teenagers.

I have never truly cared about a sports team without wanting to understand the big picture. At least for me, fandom doesn’t stop and start when the game does; I want to know more and go deeper. Otherwise, the experience is enjoyable but empty. Muzak, not Mozart.

Filling in the business side of the team fills in my need to understand. For me, though, understanding more means enjoying less.

Art and commerce, always at odds.