Salary Caps Needed in Professional Sports

Salary Caps Needed
Professional Sports

© David Burton 2023

Baseball Salaries

     In 2020, Boston Red Sox all-star right fielder Mookie Betts left the Bosox when he signed a 12-year $365 million contract with the Los Angeles Dodgers that included a $65 million signing bonus, $365 million guaranteed, and an annual average salary of $30 million.[1]

     Prior to the start of the 2023 season, Red Sox star shortstop Xander Bogaerts signed an 11-year contract with the San Diego Padres, a monumental move that brought the longtime Boston favorite to a team already laden with star talent. Bogaerts will make $280 million over the course of the deal.[2]

     These days, there is no official salary cap in Major League Baseball (MLB). This gives major market clubs like the New York Yankees, the Boston Red Sox and other wealthy teams an unfair edge. A salary cap must be implemented for all major league teams to be competitive for the whole 162-game season. Without such a salary cap, fans continue to be cheated out of the enjoyment of having their favorite players remain with the home-town team for most of their careers. For example, I grew up with Ted Williams playing for the Boston Red Sox for his entire career. Recently, however, two of the Red Sox’s best and most popular players, Mookie Betts and Xander Bogaerts, left the team for huge salaries with other teams. My interest in the Red Sox has waned immensely as a result.

     Major League Baseball’s average salary rose 14.8% to a record $4.22 million in 2022. Payrolls, a more complete reflection on spending, rose 12.6% to $4.56 billion from $4.05 billion.[3]

     In the case of Mookie Betts, he is a baseball MVP and batting champ. In 2020, the best homegrown Red Sox player in a generation, then 27 years old and in his prime, committed to the Los Angeles Dodgers until 2032.
     In Boston, Betts more than lived up to his famous initials (MLB). He hit for power with a high-contact, low-strikeout rate. He could be your leadoff or cleanup man. He roamed the biggest right field in baseball as if it were his backyard. He was the team's best and smartest baserunner.
     So why did he leave Boston? Was he always focused on leaving Boston and heading to free agency? Or did he leave because of the $30 million a year offered him by the Los Angeles Dodgers for the next 12 years?[4]

     When I grew up, major league baseball players were bound to their teams by something called “the reserve clause”. The reserve clause was part of a player’s contract which stated that the rights to players were retained by the team upon the contract's expiration. Players under these contracts were not free to enter into another contract with another team. Once signed to a contract, players could, at the team's whim, be reassigned, traded, sold, or released.
     The only negotiating leverage of most players was to hold out at contract time and to refuse to play unless their conditions were met. Players were bound to negotiate a new contract to play another year for the same team or to ask to be released or traded. They had no freedom to change teams unless they were given an unconditional release. In the days of the reserve clause, that was the only way a player could be a free agent.
     The reserve clause was abolished in baseball in 1975 and, for the most part, been replaced by free agency.
     In the late 19th century, baseball in America became popular enough that its major teams began to be businesses worth considerable amounts of money, and the players began to be paid sums that were well above the wages earned by common workers. To keep player salary demands in check, team owners promulgated a standardized contract for the players, in which the major variable was salary. The players unsuccessfully tried to fight the growing reserve system by forming a union, but the union lasted just one season. For the next 80 years, the reserve system ruled the game. In this era, all player contracts were for one year. There were no long-term contracts as there are today, because the reserve clause negated the need for them.
     The reserve clause's inception was in 1879. It allowed teams to reserve players for each season, unless a player opted out of his contract and did not play in the league for a year.
     Teams realized that if players were free to go from team to team then salaries would escalate dramatically. Therefore, they seldom granted players (at least valuable ones) a release, but retained their rights, or traded them to other teams for the rights to other players, or sold them outright for cash. Players thus had a choice only of signing for what their team offered them, or "holding out" (refusing to play, and therefore, not being paid).
     Under the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890, two or more non-affiliated companies in any other interstate business were prohibited from colluding with each other to fix prices or establish schedules or rates.
     However, under the reasoning that keeping baseball (the only large-scale professional sport in America during the 1920s) prosperous required granting it immunity from the Sherman Act, The United States Supreme Court had held in 1922 that baseball was an "amusement", and that organizing a schedule of games between independently owned and operated clubs operating in various states, and engaging in activities incidental thereto, did not constitute "interstate commerce" and therefore antitrust laws did not apply to such activity.
     In 1953, the Supreme Court upheld MLB's antitrust exemption and the reserve clause.
     This pass on "trust-busting" essentially codified the legal legitimacy of the reserve clause for many years, and gave Major League Baseball unprecedented power over players MLB could dictate how and where professional players could move between major league clubs. This system stood largely unchallenged other than by the occasional holdout for many years.
     Removing the reserve clause from player contracts became the primary goal of negotiations between the Major League Baseball Players Association and the owners. The reserve clause was struck down in 1975 when the arbitrator ruled that since pitchers Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally had played for one season without a contract, they could become free agents. This decision essentially dismantled the reserve clause and opened the door to widespread free agency within North American professional baseball.[4]

     Since the demise of the reserve clause and the birth of free agency, salaries of the top professional baseball players have gone through the roof. Where star players once stayed in one city for most or all of their careers, they began to remain in one city for shorter spans of time as they were free to move on any time they were offered more money.

     In the world of professional sports in the U.S., baseball was once the most-watched sport in the country. But, over the years, baseball has lost its appeal for many fans. Last year, a Washington Post poll showed only 11% of adults chose baseball as the favorite sport they like to watch. Baseball’s popularity is even lower among adults under 30, with just 7% ranking the sport as their favorite.
     Many things have contributed to the decline in baseball viewership. I posit that one factor in this decline has been the failure of major league baseball teams to retain their most popular players. A reason for this is that baseball is a professional sport without a hard salary cap.
     With the current system, small-market teams are being placed on the back burner while the rich teams keep getting richer. Oakland and Kansas City are two franchises that have already been struggling financially.
     Fans of these franchises and other teams often see local talent being taken away by the big market teams and they eventually lose interest. The last small-market team to win a World Series was the St. Louis Cardinals in 2011, and only five have accomplished the feat since 1997.[5]

     When I was growing up in the 1940's and 1950's, I could usually count on my favorite home team players remaing with the home team through most, if not all, of their major league careers. Ted Williams played left field for the Boston Red Sox for his entire career, Joe Dimagio played center field for the New York Yankees until he retired and Jackie Robinson played mostly second base for the Brooklyn Dodgers as long as he was in the major leagues. Today, I, along with every other baseball fan, can count on no player remaining with the home team.

     Since the elimination of the reserve clause, professional baseball players’ salaries have exploded. For example, Mookie Betts’ 12-year contract in 2020 was for an annual salary of $30 million while Xander Bogaerts will be taking home more than $25 million a year for the next 11 years.

     Maybe major league stars could get along on just $10 million a year rather than $25 or $30 million. Maybe for $10 million a year, Betts and Bogaerts could have been kept in Boston. And most assuredly, if they were still in Boston, my interest in the Red Sox and in major league baseball would still be high. Instead of rooting for the Bosox this coming season, I will be filling out Sudoku puzzles and continuing to complain about the sad and deteriorating state of major league baseball.

     Forward Jaylen Brown is one of the best two-way players in the National Basketball Association (NBA), notably making the All-NBA second team for his contributions to the Boston Celtics this season. The franchise values his ability, and that was made clear by the events of this summer.
     After a lengthy negotiation process, the Boston Celtics and Jaylen Brown agreed on a five-year, supermax extension for the forward. It is the richest deal in NBA history, and Brown is now the highest-paid player on the team. It remains to be seen how Jaylen Brown performs on this contract, but theoretically, his best years are ahead of him.
     If Jaylen Brown does well over the course of this contract, it is quite possible that he will earn another lucrative deal in the future. He is 26 years old right now, and by the end of his new extension, he will only be 31 years old. There is no doubt that Brown has the opportunity and the talent to continue being an All-NBA player, and if he does so, then he could earn another long-term deal.
     The most lucrative deal just seven years ago was signed by Mike Conley, with it being a five-year contract worth $153 million. The difference between the two is a staggering $151 million, and it is insane to think about just how big of a difference a few years makes in terms of NBA money.
     Keep in mind that Jaylen Brown's extension will end after the 2028-29 season and a deal signed at the conclusion of that season could total more than $400,000,000.
     As of right now, Jaylen Brown's career earnings are calculated at $433,212,878 (including his recent extension) by Spotrac, and if he keeps playing at an All-NBA level and gets another supermax that's worth over $400 million, then his career earnings could easily surpass $800 million. That is insane to think about.[6]

     What are needed to fix professional sports' problems are caps on the maximum salary that can be paid to a player. Players would still retain their rights under free agency, but exorbitant salary increases would no longer be part of their considerations of whether or not to move on.

  1. The Real Story Behind Mookie Betts' Departure From the Red Sox, Michael Holley,, 30 July 2020.
  2. Xander Bogaerts signs 11-year deal with Padres; deal pays $280M, sources confirm, Jeff Passan, ESPN,
    8 December 2022.
  3. Average MLB salary rose 14.8% to record $4.22 million last season, Ronald Blum, Chicago Sun Times,
    27 February 2023.
  4. Reserve Clause, Wikipedia, Accessed 27 February 2023.
  5. Why Major League Baseball is Declining in Popularity Among Fans, J.D. Hysen, Millennial Magazine, 3 June 2022.
  6. Jaylen Brown Could Earn Over $800 Million In NBA Salary Before He Retires, Lee Tran,, 26 July 2023.

  10 August 2023 {Article 587; Suggestions?_81}    
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