Wednesday, December 17, 2008

The Salary Gripe

CC Sabathia is a professional baseball player. He's a big, strong left-handed pitcher who can throw a baseball 100 miles per hour. More importantly, CC can throw that baseball accurately. So CC landed himself a huge contract that will guarantee him more than 20 million dollars per year over the next seven years.

A lot of people think that's ridiculous. Some even go so far as to say that it's unfair and believe that something should be done to limit those salaries. Then they look at Hollywood and hear about actors who make 20 million dollars per picture and say the same thing.

How can we, they lament, live in a world where a dumb jock makes millions while teachers get paid a pittance? They always bring up teachers. Well, I've met a few teachers in my life and I have to tell you that in spite of the fact that most of them were entrenched firmly in the middle of the middle class, a lot of them were overpaid. Growing up I had more teachers than I can count. You see, if so many of them hadn't been incompetent I might be able to count them, but most teachers are like most people. They do just enough to keep themselves employed and they live for the weekend. I had a couple of great teachers but I can count them on one hand. And because so many of my teachers were lousy, I actually have to count on my hands if I want to be remotely accurate.

I can see why people think actors and athletes make too much money, but the economics of entertainment dictates rates of pay and when you stop and look at how those salaries are determined you realize that they are fair. The reason CC Sabathia is going to make 23 million dollars a year for the next 7 years is because there are only one or two people in the world who can do what he does. Most people can't throw a ball 60 feet and 6 inches with any sort of accuracy let along break 90hMPH on a regular basis. CC is going to do that about 90 times every time he starts. More important he is going to be asked, not to throw the ball over the plate, but to work the edges of the plate. You see, that's the difference between a Major League Pitcher and the guy you knew in high school who spent four years playing minor league ball. You don't throw the ball through a window known as the strike zone, you throw the ball at various places on the window frame. It's not easy.

I don't even find it offensive that professional athletes are getting paid so well in spite of the economic problems we're seeing around the world. It's not like I would turn down a raise in pay or a better opportunity because other people are out of work so I'm not going to begrudge CC getting his. I do take issue with the economy of baseball but only because I think that Major League Baseball is doing its fans a disservice by making it impossible for smaller market teams to remain competitive when teams like the Yankees and the Red Sox can absorb so much payroll. But that's a different discussion for a different time.

I enjoy professional sports but I rarely spring for tickets. It's too expensive to attend games and I don't feel that I get enough entertainment out of the experience to justify the cost. So by not buying tickets I am making my point. When more people reach that squeal point teams will have to evaluate what they must do to increase ticket revenue. If they have to lower prices to sell tickets and improve volume at the gate, so be it. That's when teams will have to make adjustment in what they pay players. That's how the economy of professional sports works. It's all about ticket sales and it's fair. Sports are all about the relationship between the fans and the players. We're drawn to professional sports because those athletes do it better than we can. That's why arenas around the country sell out when LeBron James comes to town but nobody's at the Y watching the pickup basketball games.

Movies are no different. The reason certain actors and actresses make 20 million bucks to star in a movie is because they will generate that much money in ticket sales. Will Smith is a hot commodity in Hollywood right now because people buy tickets to see him. They don't care if the movie is any good. His name alone will draw an audience. After the first week the quality of the movie will dictate whether or not sales remain strong but big stars generate big money in the opening week. So production companies are willing to spend a lot of money to ensure that a big star will be attached to the picture in order to make sure that the venture makes a profit in that first week.

I'm not going to lie. I pay attention to the cast of a movie. If a movies can afford a big star they probably didn't spare any expense on the rest of the production. That doesn't always mean the movie will be good but it helps. Big stars also understand that their credibility is important so most aren't willing to risk squandering their marketability on a lousy movie just because there's a big paycheck attached to it. We've seen plenty of big stars fall from the heavens because they let themselves get cast in a couple of crappy pictures.

I'll agree with people who say that doctors are more important than actors but a doctor isn't going to draw $350 million on opening weekend. I really don't know what comparison people are trying to make here. Are they suggesting that doctors should charge more for their services, or would they rather have the government step in and dictate salaries?

There's not much in life that's fair, especially when the economy has finished circling the bowl and left streaks on the way down. Some people deserve to make more money for what they do and other people deserve less. That's the way it works. The one place salaries are fair is in the entertainment business. Those salaries are dictated by the free market and it's the one industry where a person can actually make what they are worth. It's also a place where people are actually held accountable for poor performance.

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