While the Games are Away – Free Agent Value in Galt’s Gulch

free agency shrugged
Photo credit: torbakhopper on Best Running / CC BY-ND

Eerily quiet outside, the imagination opens to possibilities. A physical talent drain to a remote place. Remote work of a different kind. What if while were waiting for sports, superstar athletes found Galt’s Gulch and left the riches behind?

While today’s superstar athletes can command salaries that hover north of $30 million a year; historically, athletes have been paid far less than fair market value for their services.

For the longest time, reserve clauses in athlete’s contracts allowed owners to secure a player’s employment at the same value year after year. Owners could pay what they felt like, or trade a player if need be.

An Athletic Galt’s Gulch

Obviously, this didn’t lead to the greatest athletes simply disappearing. Or allow the leagues to deteriorate. Lawsuits happened. Strikes happened. And ultimately it led us to our current status quo.

Contemporary free agency has turned the most successful athletes into resident performers. Instead of being associated with a single team or city, they become their own brand, a celebrity dignitary visiting a city for a 3-year concert residency before leaving for a bigger market.

A strange dynamic for the fans, where “For the love of the game” becomes a bit of a disingenuous motto, discarded when convenient. And it’s certainly not always fair. But ultimately, it is about what is earned.

Fair Market Value is Market Value

It’s as it should be. Lebron may have been called “shameful” to leave Cleveland, but he did come back (before leaving again for a new residency in LA). Jaromir Jagr disregarded South Beach all together for a much colder, distant skill sabbatical before revisiting Pittsburgh.

Sports infotainment sometimes misses the mark when it comes to free agency, promoting a narrative of betrayal rather than seeing the business reality. The player’s skill and devotion drive the success of a team.

Yoke an athlete to a status quo that doesn’t value skill and devotion at market value and players inevitably push back. Otherwise, they get taken advantage of, either economically or otherwise: as the NFL has done with its concussion protocols, or as Major League Baseball did when Curt Flood was vilified for taking them to the supreme court.

Drafts, Free agency, and Trades

The entertainment value has become as much a part of the game as what takes place on the field. Take a look at how the NFL covers their own draft, or how sports media covers sports all year round, or how video games and fantasy sports encourage fans to become owners of their own franchises.

The surrounding circus has become part of a different narrative. When a franchise needs a superstar but they still leave? It’s a betrayal. When a franchise needs to let a player go, or wants an aging player to restructure a contract? Well, that’s just sound business.

And hey, if you end up with a diva-like Antonio Brown, who winds up not playing because of cryotherapy mishaps and legal troubles. Worry not, it’s only the same headache the Steelers/Raiders/Patriots are dealing with. Production no longer makes up for the distraction.

Maybe someday down the road, Galt’s Gulch will be full of disenfranchised superstar athletes playing pick up games for the love of the game. A contemporary Field of Dreams.

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