MLB owners meetings: Yankees owner Hal Steinbrenner concerned about noncompetitive teams, centralized media rights

'What really gets me going in a negative way is owners that aren’t putting money into the team when they could be'

NEW YORK – New York Yankees chairman Hal Steinbrenner stopped short of explicitly calling out Oakland A’s owner John Fisher for dereliction of duty. But at the owners meetings Tuesday in New York, he levied a less specific critique about team owners who fail to invest to the extent of their ability, at the expense of the on-field product.

The A’s are running Major League Baseball’s lowest payroll this season, and it’s not especially close. Their sub-$60 million team is cheaper than the Yankees’ top two players: This year, Aaron Judge and Gerrit Cole will out-earn the entire A’s roster. This is not working for Oakland, but it is by design.

Despite a nice run recently, the A’s have a sub-.300 winning percentage. If not for a brief win streak, they would be on pace to be the worst team in the history of the sport — an ignominy that is still very much within the realm of possibility. And that’s because Fisher is playing at a different game — not baseball as most viewers know it so much as baseball as a real estate-adjacent business. The ineptitude of the 2023 A’s is just one part of a long-running plan to relocate the franchise out of the Bay Area and into a partially publicly funded stadium in Las Vegas.

“I don’t know enough to know about the situation in Oakland, except to know that it’s not a good situation he’s in,” Steinbrenner said when asked if he would publicly decry Fisher’s lack of spending.

But he did chastise noncompetitive teams more generally: “Any time a team is putting out a product that's not good for the industry as a whole, yes, I'm absolutely concerned about that.”

“I've always said that fans should not go to the first spring training game knowing that their team has no chance of making the playoffs,” he said. “That's just not good for the game. It's not good for the industry.”

This year, noncompetitive American League teams in the Central and West divisions could impact the Yankees if they’re forced to contend for a wild-card spot in the ultra-competitive AL East. Even under this season’s more balanced schedule, the Yankees will face their formidable East Coast foes more often, while AL West wild-card contenders can beat up on the A’s.

That said, Steinbrenner said the issue is more of a “philosophical” one — bad teams are bad for baseball. And while cheap and bad are not always correlated, one can certainly cause the other.

“What really gets me going in a negative way is owners that aren’t putting money into the team when they could be,” he said. “And that's happened in the past. That probably happens every year to a certain extent. That's what a lot of the owners like me don't like.”

Historically, franchise owners have cited the competitive imbalance created by MLB payroll disparity as a justification for pursuing a salary cap in collective bargaining with the MLB Players Association. Steinbrenner said he would be open to supporting a cap — “depending on what it is, of course” — provided it would be implemented along with a payroll floor.

“I think the two have to coexist,” he said. “If you’re going to attack it under the guise of, ‘We’ve got to fix this discrepancy because it’s not good for the industry as a whole and the sport as a whole,’ then you’ve got to narrow the gap not just by going down, right? But also by going up on the other side.”

Earlier this spring, MLB commissioner Rob Manfred also referenced payroll disparity in his public comments about trying to leverage the Diamond Sports Group bankruptcy to centralize media streaming rights. That’s a complicated issue that will no doubt be the subject of many conversations over the course of the week, but Manfred has made no secret of his hope to end the cumbersome blackouts while bringing more of the highly lucrative broadcast revenue under one umbrella. In short, centralized streaming rights mean centralized revenue means less disparity contingent on market size.

Which is something the iconically big-market Yankees don’t love.

“Anytime rights are being taken away from you — for the sake of maybe getting them centrally, for the central fund to help out other teams — it's always going to be a concern,” Steinbrenner said. “It's my job for it to be a concern for me.”

And he has expressed that concern to Manfred.

“I have called him about media rights. I have called him at least once about media rights, and we've had very lucid, calm discussions,” Steinbrenner said. “But you know, clearly, he's dealing with a lot in this industry. There’s a lot going on, and there are things that need to be worked on. And obviously, he's dealing with this whole Diamond bankruptcy, so he’s got his hands full.”

That’ll be especially true this week, as Manfred mediates the interest of big-market teams against small-market teams — and John Fisher of the A’s against owners who think baseball teams should actually try to win.