NOTE: The views expressed in this EDITORIAL do not necessarily reflect the views of Detroit Sports Nation or a majority of its writers and should not be misconstrued as such. The views contained within are the views of the author and the author alone.
Two of the four major North American sports (baseball and basketball) compete without the restrictions of a hard salary cap. The result? Salaries are through the roof, and there is very little competitive balance (probably more so in the NBA than MLB) because of it.
Perhaps I’m in the minority on this one, but my personal opinion is that sports in general are more exciting to watch if you don’t know at the beginning of the season that a certain is going to win their respective championship.
Of course, the first thing that comes to mind on the topic of big money is the NBA. Sure, its’ been neat to see the heated rivalry that has blossomed between the Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors. But, is having the same two teams meet in the finals in three consecutive seasons really all that exciting if you don’t live in Cleveland or Oakland?
The NBA does employ it’s own version of a salary cap in the offseason every year, which also includes a luxury tax limit (a limit that forces a team to pay a certain amount for each dollar they eclipse the cap) that gets steeper every year that a team becomes a “repeat offender”. But, there are a laundry list of exceptions that a team can use to legally exceed the salary cap.
Those exceptions include the Kevin Durant rule, the mid-level exception, the bi-annual exception, the rookie exception, the Larry Bird exception, the Early Bird exception, the minimum salary exception, and a traded player exception. Granted, most of these clauses exist as a way of giving the teams a better chance to re-sign their own players. But general managers across the league have found ways to use these exceptions to skyrocket the amount of money their teams spend on players.
Last year’s NBA saw 14 teams exceed $100 million in salary. The salary cap for the 2016-17 season was $94.14 million, with a luxury tax limit of $113.29 million. Perhaps not surprisingly, the Cavaliers led the way with the highest team salary in the league, while the eventual champion Warriors has the eighth highest salary. Understandably, neither the general managers nor the players deserve to be blamed for such incredibly high number. GM’s are doing their jobs, while the players are trying to maximize their values. It’s the NBA itself that has allowed such exceptional numbers become a reality.
Let’s transition over to the diamond now. Major League Baseball plays under a competitive balance tax. While that doesn’t sound like a soft cap, it is just that in everything but name. This is in place to level the amount an individual team can spend on their roster. For the 2017 season, the tax limit is $195 million. This means that every team can spend up to $195 million on their roster with no penalty, but every dollar spent above that mark comes at a higher cost. The first season that a team eclipses the allotted amount, they are taxed 22.5 percent of the amount that they surpassed the given amount by. Second-time offenders are taxed 30 percent; third-time offenders are taxed 40 percent; every time after that will see a 50% tax.
There has been much more competitive balance in baseball since the implementation of this tax in 1996. Although the tax rule itself has been modified numerous times since it’s inception, it has been in place for 21 years now.
Since the rule was put in to place, there has only been one team to win consecutive World Series championships, when the New York Yankees won three straight from 1998-2000, and also won another in 2009. The San Francisco Giants have also won three championships in that time span (2010, 2012, and 2014), while the St. Louis Cardinals have won two (2006 and 2011).
That’s three teams winning a combined nine of the previous 19 World Series bouts.
While competitive balance hasn’t been such an issue in baseball, the contracts offered to star players have become just about ridiculous. Los Angeles Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw makes north of $35 million a season. Kershaw’s former staff mate, Diamondbacks hurler, Zack Greinke, makes $34-$35 million a season. The list goes on and on. All told, there are 38 players in the MLB who make at least $20 million a year.
These contracts, while all are fair and legal, are hampering the game of baseball. Sure, TV contracts are big, merchandise sales are high, and the money is there for the teams to spend. But, such enormous amounts of money bring the league to a level of expense that can not be reasonably expected to continue to create competitive balance across the league. At this rate, how long will it be until we see a player receive a $500 million (yes, that’s half a billion) contract? Hello, Mike Trout or Bryce Harper.
The NFL plays under a salary cap that is not to be topped. The upcoming season sees a salary cap of $167 million per team. Teams are allowed to carry over unused cap space from one season to another, however, which makes the cap number different for each team once the season officially begins.
Since the turn of the millennium, the NFL has seen one instance of a team winning back to back Super Bowls (New England Patriots, 2004 and 2005). They have won a total of five championships since 2000. Only two other teams have won multiple Super Bowls in that time span (Baltimore Ravens, 2001 and 2013; New York Giants, 2008 and 2012).
Although the Patriots have become perennial Super Bowl champions, salaries across the league remain high. Quarterbacks are paid premium money, while other skilled positions also make exceptionally high salaries. The term on NFL contracts is generally not as long as other sports though, as average the career expectancy is not as high as other sports due to the exceptionally physical nature of the game.
The NHL, in my opinion, is leading the way in showing how professional sports should be run. Since the league’s lockout in 2005, which saw the entire season canceled, the league has played under a hard salary cap. For the upcoming 2017-18 season, the cap number has been announced at $78 million.
The only exception in the NHL that allow a team see surpass the salary cap are injuries. The injured player must be placed on injured reserve, at which point the team receives a form of relief against the salary cap.
Just three players in the NHL last season carried cap hits of $10 million or more. While the league does allow some flexibility as far as how the players are paid over the course of their contracts, their cap hit is determined by the average amount per year over the course of their contract.
Since the inception of the salary cap in the NHL post-lockout, only one team has won a Stanley Cup championship in consecutive years (Pittsburgh Penguins, 2016 and 2017). The Chicago Blackhawks and Los Angeles Kings are the only other teams to have won multiple championships in that time span.
The NHL, although probably the least popular of the major North American sports, has it figured out. Their superstars are not paid crippling salaries, competitive balance is extremely evident, and the game is just as exciting to watch as it ever has been.
The concept behind a salary cap is to create a balance of power that keeps numerous teams relevant over periods of time. It also creates superstars. If you want to know who the best players in any given sport really are, then put them on a team that can’t overpay a surrounding cast that makes them look invincible. Take Sidney Crosby, for example. Although he may not be the most likable guy in the game, he has led his team to three Stanley Cups in the salary cap era.
In a parallel universe, would LeBron James, Stephen Curry, Tom Brady, Kershaw, or Greinke be able to do the same while under a cap? The questions will always remain.
While it’s unlikely that it will ever happen in reality, it’s a nice thought to have. A world where the NBA isn’t divided into two categories. One of “teams that have a ‘big three'” and “teams that don’t”, and where baseball and football don’t boast contracts that approach the stratosphere. If nothing else, hockey has shown us that there is a golden path that can be followed to eliminate all of these things. It’s just a shame that the path will never be followed.