A team finally took the plunge: the Phillies signed Bryce Harper to a 13-year, $330 million contract, the richest in the history of American sports. With any contract of that gigantic a value, a player will struggle to live up to the deal. The Phillies, then, are prioritizing dramatic change over spending efficiency.
It’s been a decade since they sniffed relevancy (when they lost to the Yankees 4-2, a series that culminated in a fun game six where Hideki Matsui casually decided he was gonna clear the bases every time he came to bat), so it makes sense that they try something drastic. Is shoving all this money at Harper going to solve their problems, though? I can’t tell you much about their roster; I don’t particularly care. I doubt Harper will deliver them to the relevancy they crave. Rarely does transcendent individual talent produce a championship; instead, a strong team enables the stardom of a few to shine a little brighter than it would otherwise.
Knowing that Harper can’t carry them to a title, it seems like a poor value proposition to pay Harper that much. Super-duper-stars like Harper don’t just contribute on the field. Their celebrity draws fans, in-person and on TV. They generate revenue at crazy rates – Harper broke the 24-hour jersey-selling record for any American athlete, and the Phillies sold 100,000 tickets in the same timeframe – making them not just success stories for themselves, but efficient plays for the team. For an owner more concerned with making money than getting rings, players like Harper are a great fit.
But he’s probably not worth the money on the field. That $330 million most likely could be better spent elsewhere, especially as baseball shifts to a tactical arms race for specialized relief pitchers. If one wanted to build the team most likely to succeed, they would allocate those resources differently. Harper is a baseball billionaire; his income is not a reflection of his output as much as the value society places upon him. The fact that these two measures don’t equal each other is concerning.
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez will tell you that every billionaire is a policy failure. To those aligned with her highly liberal views, one person amassing such wealth is a sign that there is a fundamental problem in the distribution of income. It is a feature of inequality-generating, American hypercapitalism. When CEOs accumulate billions of dollars while employing workers who make the minimum wage, or less, in other countries, they seem to be extracting wealth more so because they can than because they need it. I’m not sure that every billionaire is a policy failure, but I do think there is often a mismatch between how society determines the worth of individual and the value that an individual creates for their organization. If I were a Phillies fan, seeing Harper get paid so much would piss me off.
Where is this article going? I don’t know. It was due 25 hours ago, and I had to write something. The point is, sports matter. Looking at economies of sports shows us our American values. Maybe it’s a great thing for Harper to make so much money. Maybe he deserves it all, and it’s good management by the Phillies to give it to him, even if he is a whiny %*$^&. We love dumping huge amounts of money at the doorsteps of individuals, trusting that their singular greatness drives our national pride. Maybe it doesn’t.
Contact Jack Golub at golubj ‘at’ stanford.edu.