How Small Market Teams Find Success

Kyle Tooley

The past sport’s year alone has seen two classifiable “small-market” teams make it to their respective championship games.  With the Kansas City Royals of the MLB and the San Antonio Spurs of the NBA, we see two different structures and formulas for building a championship team.  And actually, the methods should be different.  Small-market teams are affected differently in the MLB than they are in the NBA, and that has to do with how each league’s salary cap rules, or lack thereof, are set up.  But when it’s game seven and we have a team from New York or Los Angeles matching up against a team from Sacramento or San Antonio we have to ask the questions of how did this happen? How was a relatively poor team able to compete with teams that don’t have a money problem?

The Oakland A's use draft day as the primary way to build their team
The Oakland A’s use draft day as the primary way to build their team

The answer is building from within, and it is documented across all sports.  That, paired with a smart front office making sound financial decisions is the way small-market teams can compete.  Call it “moneyball” if you want, but it comes down to smart decision-making.  This is especially imperative in the MLB, as there is no salary cap whatsoever.  Yes, there is a luxury tax that requires offenders of going over the “limit” to pay a percentage of their team payroll to the league, but this does not concern many owners in baseball.  Teams like the Royals, A’s, Rays, and even the Diamondbacks need to employ smart, cutting-edge techniques in order to compete.  How else can the A’s explain trading all-star and perennial MVP third baseman Josh Donaldson?  The dollar amount it would have taken to resign him at the end of his contract probably would have been higher than any contract any A’s player has ever signed, ever.  So, they dump him off for a handful of cheap prospects and hope they pan out.  Think about it this way: The A’s made the playoffs in 2014 and the Yankees did not.  The A’s team salary was $74 million and the Yankees’ was $209 million.  Though conservation helps, building from within doesn’t always mean being cheap; in fact, the Bird Rights in the NBA were set up so that teams could retain their players without taking too big of a hit against the salary cap.  But, building through a draft or smart trades will always be less expensive than signing a superstar free agent to more money in one season than I’ll see in my entire life.

Small market teams can afford to sign one or two big name players to build around their teams, like the Warriors signing Andre Iguodala
Small market teams can afford to sign one or two big name players to build around their teams, like the Warriors signing Andre Iguodala

A perfect example of this is the San Antonio Spurs.  On their 2014 championship roster, all five players in their starting lineup were either drafted by the Spurs or traded to the Spurs on draft day.  Hell, their biggest free agent signing of the past three years might be Boris Diaw, who was cut by a team that set the NBA’s benchmark for the lowest winning percentage in the history of the league.  Their total team payroll was roughly $69 million, while the worst team in the NBA this season, the New York Knicks, have a payroll of $81 million. My point is this: we see teams each and every year that shouldn’t compete but do, and that could be because they lost big name free agents or didn’t sign any.  But with building from within comes small-market success, and that leads to a higher chance of signing some offseason pieces that could help build a championship roster.  This is seen by the Warriors being able to sign an Andre Iguodala or the A’s signing a Billy Butler, neither of which are big signings dollars and cents wise, but they have and will make an impact.

The small-market teams of the world simply can’t compete with the New York, LA, and other big market teams in professional sports by simply considering dollars and cents.  However, nothing can stop a team from finding a smart front office to run the team on a budget.  Smart trades, draft picks, and bargain signings are the way of the future and, before too long, might mean more than dollar signs.

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