Pujols Is Worth Every Penny (All 3 Billion of Them)
We are rapidly approaching the deadline imposed by Albert Pujols and the Cardinals’ front office to secure a new contract for Saint Louis’ franchise player. Both sides claim that if an agreement is not reached by Feb. 18, when position players report to spring training, discussion of the matter will be shut down until the end of the season. This would make it far more likely for Pujols to enter free agency in November, undoubtedly driving up the price of his contract. Regardless of whether he wears the “Birds on the Bat” beyond 2011, Pujols is widely expected to earn more than the $25 million per year that Saint Louis native son Ryan Howard signed for last year, as first baseman for the Philadelphia Phillies. Although people frequently denounce such salaries as obscenely high, the practice makes perfect economic sense.
For most of baseball’s history, even the best professional players did not make salaries hundreds of times greater than the average American. In large part, this was attributable to the reserve clause attached to player contracts that forced them to bargain solely with the team that signed them — even after the contract expired. In 1975, an arbitrator allowed two players to become free agents, effectively striking down the reserve clause. From that point forward, general managers have been forced to compete against each other for free agents, driving player salaries skyward.
In most cases, these multimillion-dollar salaries benefit everyone involved. Most obviously, the players benefit because they earn more money. And, although ownership would undoubtedly like to return to the days of the reserve clause and cheap labor, they still generally prefer paying stratospheric salaries instead of fielding a third-rate team. Most importantly, baseball fans enjoy watching their highly paid stars play up to their potential, as shown by our willingness to spend money on the sport. Until the recession hit in 2008, Major League Baseball (MLB) set attendance records on an almost annual basis, peaking in 2007 with more than 79.5 million tickets sold — an average of 32,785 fans per game. Attendance has declined about 7 percent since then, down to (still healthy) 2003 levels. The reason that superb athletes like Pujols can command millions or even tens of millions of dollars per year is because people willingly give their hard-earned money to watch them perform.
Seen from the perspective of the value he brings to fans, Pujols is a bargain at $25 or even $30 million a year. The Cardinals had the fourth-highest MLB attendance in 2010, with 3,301,218 fans attending 81 home games, according to ESPN. If each of those fans contributed only nine dollars — just once — it would net Pujols $30 million for the year. Of course, this dramatically understates how dearly Cardinals fans value his skills, because it ignores attendance at away games and the much larger audiences listening on the radio and watching on television. J.C. Bradbury, an economist at Kennesaw State University and author of The Baseball Economist, estimates that an eight-year contact with Pujols is worth $350 million, based upon similar deals to other superstars and current revenue growth. That’s $43.75 million per year. Another examination, using the statistic Wins Above Replacement (WAR), pegs the dollar value of an average season for Pujols at $32.3 million.
This analysis is complicated by subsidies that the Cardinals have received from the government — mostly in the form of deferential tax treatment and government-secured loans for the construction of the new Busch Stadium. Some area taxpayers do not care for baseball or the Cardinals, so they lose out on that deal. Such subsidies, however, are not an argument against high salaries per se, but rather against government favoritism toward certain businesses.
In 1960, Stan Musial came off a substandard season and requested a pay cut from $100,000 to $75,000. It was an honorable move from a man who demanded nothing short of perfection from himself. But nothing suggests that Pujols’ success as a player will decline any time soon. The value that Pujols has added to his fans’ lives far outstrips even the eight-digit figure on his current contract — so go ahead and pay the man what he deserves.
John Payne is a research assistant for the Show-Me Institute, an independent think tank promoting free-market solutions for Missouri public policy.