On the eve of Spring Training there are still more than a hundred MLB free agents searching for a team and the union and its members continue to lament the failure of MLB teams to open the vault for aging players.
But MLB teams have learned a hard lesson thanks to analytics: the majority of players peak in their 20’s. Better to pay younger, more productive players one year at a time through their arbitration years than be saddled with guaranteed, long-term contracts for less productive veterans.
Baseball isn’t the only sport that understands it’s a waste of resources to pay for past production when present and future production can be obtained at a lower cost – and at lower risk. The Associated Press analyzed data that showed NFL teams are trending younger, and not coincidentally, cheaper. Between 2005 and 2018, the average experience on opening-day rosters dropped from 4.6 years to 4.3.
The decline came despite union efforts memorialized in the 2006 and 2011 collective bargaining agreements to stem that tide and protect veterans’ jobs. Those efforts included a clause that allowed teams to pay veterans at a lower fixed rate based on years of service along with a rookie salary cap.
The AP analysis included the seven Super Bowl champions between 2012 and 2018. Title teams shed an average of 20.4 players off their 53-man rosters between the Super Bowl and Week 1 of the following season. That’s an average of 38.5 percent of rosters. New players had 1.8 fewer years of experience than the players they replaced.
Most teams now have a few stars eating up approximately 50 percent of the salary cap, which totaled $177 million last year, dozens of young players earning close to the minimum salary, and the remaining two-thirds of the roster consisting of veterans in the middle. For veteran players, there’s more at stake than salary.
It takes three years of service to become vested in the league’s pension plan. And there are medical benefits to longevity that are important, given the heavy toll the game takes on the players’ bodies.
The union has fought successfully to increase the amount of money going to all players, in part by raising the NFL cap on team payrolls. But union leaders maintain it’s impossible to control how teams spend that money on their rosters.
Not all teams have gotten younger, even when their rosters see significant turnover. New England’s five Super Bowl champions prior to 2019 turned over an average of 19.2 players the season after they won their titles. But some of those rosters actually got older, in part because the almost two-thirds of the players who remained got a year older.
The Pats’ sixth Super Bowl champion will likely resemble their previous five in roster turnover. Approximately 30 percent of their roster enters free agency next month and other players may retire or be traded.
Advances in conditioning and equipment have benefitted aging players, but money dictates that professional team sports are increasingly becoming a young man’s game.
Jordan Kobritz is a non-practicing attorney and CPA, former Minor League Baseball team owner and current investor in MiLB teams. He is a professor in the Sport Management Department at SUNY Cortland and maintains the blog, sportsbeyondthelines.com. The opinions contained in this column are the author’s. Kobritz can be reached by email at email@example.com.