The New York Yankees' embarrassing collapse is the perfect example of how vulture capitalism works

·6 min read
new york yankees
Members of the New York Yankees. Rob Tringali/MLB Photos/Getty Images
  • The Yankees were supposed to be one of the best teams in baseball this year.

  • Greedy decisions from the team's front office stopped that from happening.

  • Vulture capitalism is having a detrimental effect on sports and entertainment at large.

  • Eoin Higgins is a journalist in New England and a contributing opinion writer for Insider.

  • This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.

  • See more stories on Insider's business page.

This was supposed to be the year of the Yankees. New York's premiere baseball team, one of the most successful franchises in sports history, had the pieces to compete and go all the way to the World Series.

Now, with their season on the line, the Yankees are in freefall. They dropped two series against the poor-playing Orioles and Cleveland before sweeping lowly Texas, an uneven performance that made a 13-game winning streak from August seem like a distant memory of a different team.

The team is playing middling-to-poor baseball, statistically, and the team ownership's apathy is brutally apparent. New York is fielding a perennial potential contender that fills seats and makes money. That's all that matters.

The current condition of the Yankees' season is a perfect example of how modern American vulture capitalism sucks the soul out of everything it touches. Billionaire team owners penny-pinching to keep the millions of dollars coming in while playing poorhouse to fans have given players nothing to fight for, as every important decision is made by analytics departments and computers.

The Yankees are a notably high-profile version of this approach, but they're by no means the worst offender.

You can't out-Rays the Rays

You can't predict baseball. But that doesn't excuse what's been a lackluster season so far for the Yankees - and the root of the problem goes to the top.

Constrained by an artificial salary cap in the form of a negotiated "luxury tax" - in which every dollar over $210 million in 2021 is taxed at a rate relative to the number of years in a row the club has exceeded it - the Yankees took a conservative approach to picking up players in the offseason. The front office clearly hoped that a patchwork team merging the contracts and cheap talent they already had with a couple of big bets would do the trick.

By-and-large, it hasn't. Even a flurry of trades at the midsummer trade deadline hasn't helped.

It's all led to a sort of malaise hanging over the Yankee dugout that you'd, in the past, be more likely to find in Boston or another team with a lesser pedigree. New York's team - this one, at least - isn't supposed to play so poorly. They haven't had a losing record in 29 seasons in a row and have made the playoffs in all but six of those (this year might be seven).

For Yankees fans, part of the fun of rooting for the behemoth is the swagger and pride. The Yankees are at heart a fundamentally mean team, built to dominate and bully their opponents through a power brand of baseball. Seeing them with such a lackluster approach is depressing.

But that's the name of the game under the soulless, analytics-first approach that the Yankees are playing. When every dollar and every move needs to be hyper-analyzed by a team of number-punchers, the product on the field isn't going to have the same pep in their step that you'll find from teams run by a front office with heart.

It's hard to look at the current state of baseball operations in the Bronx and not think the team's front office is still trying to out-Rays the Rays, the Tampa team whose slash-and-burn approach to talent has been largely enabled by playing in a small market where the fanbase, such as it is, doesn't care enough to make a fuss.

That vulture capital approach to managing a team, however, is not unique to the Rays, even though they do it well. It's part of an increasingly dominant view of how to run a business that has seeped into nearly every aspect of American life. Corporate cost-cutting and a reliance on numbers over feelings rule the day.

Not given the tools to succeed

Once you start looking, the signs of vulture capital's takeover of our culture are hard to miss. Baseball is one of the more visible arenas of public life where this impulse is being seen so clearly, but it's far from the only one. In the entertainment world, the need for cost-cutting and turning a profit at the expense of quality is pervasive and an article of faith. Disney's Marvel properties, for example, have become ubiquitous - their sense of style and humor pervade nearly every corner of the film industry at the expense of creativity.

But that brand is built on the same slash-and-burn money saving tactics that the Yankees are. For Disney, it's an over-reliance on non-union CGI work to cut corners for set and costume design, forcing union workers in those industries off the set. This has in turn led to a washed-out, sterile feel to films in general, and has given rise to backlash against Disney's all-encompassing cultural dominance.

It's a bitter pill to swallow, but decisions made about art, entertainment, and sports are seldom made with the purity of the product in mind. Rather, they're seen as a means to an end, a way to extract as much money from audiences as possible while cutting corners whenever necessary. This isn't to say that there's no pride in creating entertainment for the public or that players and teams aren't trying to succeed - it's to say that they're not being given the tools to succeed by the people that control the purse strings.

For the New York Yankees, the frustration with the constraints of the vulture capital approach to the game is evident. Ownership refused to take steps to make the team substantially stronger both during the offseason and over the summer because it would have cost more than they were willing to spend. That fixation on cutting costs to maximize returns and minimize spending has led to a slow-moving, uninspiring team. But as long as fans continue to support the Yankees with their money, there's no reason to change the quality of the product.

This column could prove to be laughably incorrect in just a few weeks. Baseball's unique scheduling and the unpredictability of the sport might lead to a situation where the Yankees are propelled into the postseason and to a World Series victory, however improbable that seems at the moment. But if they do, that will be in spite of, not because of, the capital-focused decisions made by the team's front office.

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