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Sunday, April 11, 2004

Weekend update

Sorry, readers, but I spent Saturday drafting a second fantasy baseball team and have not had time to think much about politics, globalization, or Iraq. The 12 owners in my "Hardy House" league (AL only) employ an auction that always takes 6 to 8 hours, not counting the hours of preparation time. I've been meeting annually with some of these guys since 1989, when many of us were students or young faculty at Northwestern. That year, Cy Young winner Bret Saberhagen and league MVP Robin Yount led my team to its first title.

The day is fun, but every auction can be frustrating. It's a market, but prices have been distorted by cheap "keepers" -- players that each owner retains in advance of the draft because he had the luck or foresight to pick them when they were undervalued in one of the past two seasons. Plus, as the draft proceeds, scarcity starts to play a role affecting prices. Talent becomes increasingly scarce, and some owners face spending limits.

Yes, unlike the major leagues, we operate like most fantasy leagues do under an equal salary structure. Each of us has the exact same material resources with which to assemble a team.

I'm an opponent of salary caps in real baseball, but I do think there's a decent argument for greater revenue sharing among owners. A great part of the disparity among major league teams derives from TV revenues that baseball generates mostly from "local" TV contracts. Back in 2001, the New York Yankees received almost 10 times as much from local TV as did my KC Royals.

The NFL, by contrast, equally splits an enormous network TV deal and there are very limited local broadcast revenues. Incidentally, I think the disparities are getting worse. I've seen estimates suggesting the Yankees may now be receiving something like $90 million annually from broadcast revenues. It's hard to determine because teams have incentives to hide revenues (showing profits in corporate partners; George Steinbrenner owns both the Yankees and the YES broadcast network).

Back to my Saturday. Ultimately, many of the players I wanted to buy were bid up past what I wanted to pay. Of course, I was unable to bid more because I quite early dropped a lot of pretend cash (we don't play for money) on Derek Jeter and Alfonso Soriano.

Stuck with my high-priced stars (ironically, I bid them up because I thought they were too cheap), I was left with little choice but to pursue some relative unknowns later in the draft. Suffice to say that I'm now a big fan of youngsters Michael Cuddyer , Lew Ford , Kevin Mench, Reed Johnson and Eric DuBose.

Owners in my league are pretty sharp, so young players tend to sell for higher prices than the fantasy baseball guidebooks suggest. Because we use a keeper system, older players at the end of their careers are discounted and young players future value is very much factored into their current price.

Still, I got all five of those young players together for exactly the same amount I paid for Soriano alone.

Real baseball would probably be a different game if it worked more like our league. Young players would not be locked to their teams for so long at artificially low prices. Some of the game's best players make near league minimum, while they easily outplay older guys making millions. Players agreed to this structure in the collective bargaining agreement, and salary arbitration helps resolve many of the disparities after three years' service in the league.

While fans might worry about too much turnover from a system that would work more like a market, our league suggests that this might not be a huge problem. I regularly release and then re-purchase the same players year-after-year. Just about every owner in my league has favorite players and will attempt to buy them at the draft if available. One guy used to buy Paul O'Neill every year because his wife really wanted to root for him.

At yesterday's draft, I obtained Kyle Lohse and Erubiel Durazo who I cut only last week -- and Jeter is very frequently on my team.

Well, that's probably more than anyone wants to read about my fantasy baseball team. Hopefully, the non-fantasy elements made it worth reading.

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