How Are Super-Long Contracts Good For Sports?

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Zach Parise and Ryan Suter signed matching 13-year contracts with the Minnesota Wild reportedly worth a total of $196 million. This follows Sidney Crosby’s contract with the Penguins for 12-years at $104.4 million. Crosby is just getting over serious concussion problems which would presumably make the contract uninsurable. This madness appeared to begin with the Islanders’ retrospectively idiotic 15-year, $67.5 million contract they gave to Rick DiPietro in 2006 for which they’ve gotten absolutely nothing mostly due to injuries.

I’m not well-versed enough in hockey to be able to judge the wisdom of the matching deals the Wild just game to Parise and Suter, but as sports has tried to rein in salaries in a multitude of ways with caps, edicts and punishments, teams have found creative ways to circumvent those caps or to delay them from maturing. One of those methods has been to give contracts that, for athletes, are giant rolls of the dice.

Parise is 28, Suter is 27. Basically the Wild will be paying these players until they’re 41 and 40. For every Nicklas Lidstrom, Steve Yzerman, Gordie Howe and Chris Chelios who maintain production until they’re 40 and beyond, there’s an Eric Lindros, Pat LaFontaine and Chris Pronger who have their careers shortened due to head injuries; there’s a Peter Forsberg who had to retire from the NHL at 34 to play in the less violent Swedish league and made a brief comeback to the NHL and retired again at 37; there’s a Cam Neely whose degenerative hip condition forced him to retire at 30.

Baseball has taken to this contractual trend. In recent years Albert Pujols, Joey Votto, Prince Fielder, CC Sabathia and Joe Mauer have signed deals of 7 years and beyond. Alex Rodriguez is the perfect example of an elite player whose skills are eroding but will be paid as an elite player for another five years after this one. It’s risky with position players and deranged with pitchers. Teams have it in mind that they’re probably going to be paying their players for a year or two in which they can’t play, but that doesn’t help them when it happens; when the inevitable decline occurs.

The concept of offering more years to spread the money out makes sense, but of course it developed that the players wanted high annual salaries and the 7-10 year deals.

It’s one thing to give that contract to someone working for Apple. If they’re creating salable products that will last, it makes sense. The likelihood of a debilitating injury or condition to a person who’s not using his bodily skills to achieve his mandate are extremely small. But for an athlete? Paying them until they’re in their late-30s and early-40s is financial suicide especially in the era of PED testing and scrutiny.

Eventually those contracts—not the players but the contracts—are marketable and movable because the deals are winding down and they can be traded for another overpaid, underperforming player so the process can be started all over again.

The Rays are a club that has been pointed to as a paragon of fiscal sanity and fearlessness in trading players in their prime to restock the farm system. But it’s not a great example. Functioning in a unique vacuum, the Rays’ circumstances of having little money to work with; not much of a media and fan presence haranguing them to do certain things; that they have an owner and GM who trust one another and are completely on the same page; and have had success doing what they’re doing to validate when they choose to trade a Matt Garza for prospects gives them freedom that a Brian Cashman doesn’t have; that Theo Epstein didn’t have with the Red Sox.

Recently a “talent evaluator” from a club other than the Mets supposedly suggested that the team should consider trading R.A. Dickey while he’s at his “high value”.

The Mets are in contention; Dickey is a remarkable story; he’s a fan attraction; and he’s pitching brilliantly.

Trade him? Really? How’s that going to be explained and what could they possibly get to make it worth the fallout?

It’s remarkably easy to be Mr. Fearless when you’re little more than a voice in the woods giving advice to the actual decisionmakers. It’s the GMs and assistant GMs who have an owner hanging over them and saying, “we have to keep X player because the fans come specifically to see him and he makes us a lot of gate money”; or to have the ignorant, agenda-driven media following editorial orders and stoking fan response to sell newspapers, attract callers and beget webhits.

Making courageous statements from the sideline isn’t the same thing as having to answer for them when they’re implemented. A decision might be the right one and it could take 3-5 years to be accurately gauged. By then the GM who made the move might’ve been fired long ago.

The intention for the salary constraints was to prevent the larger clubs with more money from swallowing up the smaller clubs who didn’t have the means to compete, but teams and executives are constantly looking for solutions and loopholes to beat the system. That’s what Scott Boras is currently doing with the draconian draft rules that are cutting into a chunk of his business.

Bet that he’ll come up with a way to beat that system.

Bet that teams are thinking of ways to get their hands on players who aren’t willing to adhere to those draft rules.

The intentions of the caps and limits were reasonable, but that doesn’t mean they’re wise.

The Wild got their men and they’ll have them until they’re old. Only time will tell whether today’s splash will have been worth it. Logic and history says that the answer is no.

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