Baseball Players Are Musicians Now [WAAMN Chapter 4.7]
The stars of America's pastime lag their NBA and NFL peers when it comes to racking up earnings—and especially equity—off the field. They'd be wise to follow the music.
This is your weekly installment of my new book, We Are All Musicians Now. To make sure you don’t miss future serializations, subscribe here. Below you’ll find Chapter 4: The Accidental Musicians (Part 7). Enjoy!
The beginning of baseball season should be a national holiday. So I always treat it as such, whether sneaking out of high school in 2003 to see Hideki Matsui launch his first MLB homer through the freezing rain at the old Yankee Stadium, or taking a day off work to feel the rush of Luke Voit crushing a grand slam into the new Monument Park sixteen years later.
These baseball moments live in the same sensory neighborhood of my brain as my musical recollections. Like squelching through the mud in a new pair of white Sambas to see Jay-Z perform at All Points West in 2009, or smelling sunshine rising from concrete last summer in Forest Hills Stadium at a Brandi Carlile show, my first since Covid began.
But baseball and music have a lot more in common than the space they occupy in my particular brain. Think about it: a baseball team is basically an arena rock band. The group plays 162 dates per year, traveling the country and packing stadiums, with the best ones selling a couple million tickets in a year. Ownership fronts the cash and cleans up on concessions, parking, and ancillary stuff (more on that later).
Whether executing an improbable double play or an epic guitar solo, the stars perform exquisite feats of mental prowess and muscle memory. For their efforts, the cream of the crop are generally paid double-digit millions per annum.
But that’s where the similarities begin to fade, at least on the business side: the ten highest-paid baseball players earned a combined $357 million in 2021—Bruce Springsteen nearly doubled that total by himself. So did Jay-Z. In fact, all of music’s ten top-earning acts banked more in 2021 than any baseball player has ever accumulated in a single year. Tina Turner tallied about four times as much as Trea Turner, arguably the best player in the game.
The reason behind this vast chasm comes down to equity. Springsteen managed to get control of his master recordings and publishing rights decades ago, which enabled him to flip them for half a billion dollars in 2021. Jay-Z built his own companies and sold two of them for nine-figure sums en route to a $470 million payday last year.
Baseball players, on the other hand, generally earn the vast majority of their pay from on-field salary. Among last year's top ten, half earned $1 million or less annually from endorsements and outside business ventures; a few garnered low-seven-figure sums shilling for various brands. That’s a pittance compared to the amounts received by music’s superstars offstage.
That reality has much to do with the structure of the business. Jay-Z can start his own label, but ballplayers can’t exactly start their own teams. Still, they can do what their peers in music—and in the NFL and NBA—have done: leverage fame to invest in the most promising startups on the planet.
Take rap legend (and noted Mets fan) Nas, who started his own venture fund and got in early on companies from Coinbase to Lyft. Or football star Bobby Wagner, who now holds a vast portfolio through his angel investments and his outlays in funds operated by the likes of Andreessen-Horowitz and (Yankee aficionado Jay-Z’s) Marcy Venture Partners.
“The two people that I looked up to the most when it came to sports and entertainment were Magic Johnson and Jay-Z,” he told me. “Watching both of them kind of use their platform—and use their talents in a different space to open the door for something else—was something that … inspired me.”
Some would argue that baseball players lag their counterparts elsewhere in entertainment because, they say, the sport itself is dying. It’s true that the game is hemorrhaging viewers as its core audience ages. And indeed, baseball can’t seem to get out of its own way when it comes to promoting its young stars, hewing instead to idiotic unwritten rules (for a primer on this lunacy, see how Fernando Tatis, Jr.—perhaps the most electric player in the sport—had to apologize for hitting a grand slam during a blowout game in 2020).
Still, the fundamental economics of baseball are, in many ways, perfect for our times. The game’s rich history of collectibles and memorabilia provide fertile ground for the current baseball card renaissance, boosted both by inflation and the soaring values of limited-edition goods in a market increasingly driven by scarcity. A century before NFTs, there were baseball cards.
And in an era where traditional television has been rocked by the rise of time-shifting and web video clips, live events have become paramount, as they’re one of the last un-fast-forwardable places to stick advertising. Sure, baseball doesn’t have anywhere near the reach of the NFL. World Series games usually draw lower ratings than the average Thursday Night Football telecast. But here’s the thing: there is so much more baseball.
Spring training begins every February and the season runs into November, with games played nearly each day. A vast community of fantasy nerds (superfans!) follows not just every game, but the underlying velocity and spin rate and shape of every pitch. There’s an almost limitless quantity of live content, and a correspondingly huge trove of highlights. There’s no reason baseball’s best bat flips can’t compete for attention with the dunks of NBA Top Shot. And there’s no reason baseball players can’t invest alongside their basketball brethren in similarly scintillating startups.
A handful of baseball players have made such investments or started their own ventures, mostly on the West Coast. As wrote in my book A-List Angels: How A Band Of Actors, Artists, And Athletes Hacked Silicon Valley, San Francisco Giants catcher Buster Posey launched an app called Buster Bash in 2012 with the help of CAA. Los Angeles Dodgers outfielder Mookie Betts is creating his own gaming channel. His team even has a firm of its own, Elysian Park Ventures, quietly amassing stakes in companies from SeatGeek to DraftKings.
Probably the highest-profile startup investor among baseball players is Alex Rodriguez. The polarizing star has racked up stakes in companies including healthcare upstart Oscar and ride-hailing outfit Didi (no relation to Gregorius). But that sort of thing has been on his agenda for quite a long time.
“I’ve always had passion and a dream to be both mainly a baseball player and a businessman,” he once explained to me in an interview for Forbes. “What Buffett says is ‘Pay a fair price for a great business, rather than a great price for a fair business.’”
There aren’t many in the game doing this sort of thing, and the ones who do are mostly keeping it very low-profile. There’s room for so many more baseball players in this space. If Draymond Green—who’s not even a top-five scorer on his own team, let alone the NBA—can become an A-List angel investor, there’s no reason Tatis and Betts and scores of other baseball players can’t do the same on a grand scale.
And especially for startups looking to reach new audiences in markets from Asia to Latin America, superstars like Shohei Ohtani and Ronald Acuna, Jr. offer a compelling path to consumers. Plus, sometimes the greatest value of a big name on the cap table has nothing to do with customer acquisition: Joe Montana has helped his portfolio companies with introductions to names ranging from American Express to Snoop Dogg.
As this past winter’s labor dispute reminded observers, baseball players get rich, but baseball owners get wealthy. That happens through equity: the value of the teams they own, as well as the (often government-subsidized) stadiums and accompanying real estate developments around them.
There’s more to it than simply the physical infrastructure around the sport. Just as “dying” record labels snagged billions in Spotify equity for themselves a decade ago, MLB owners pocketed the ten-figure proceeds of their own streaming sale a couple years back.
Meanwhile, many players struggle to stay in the majors long enough to build up a nest egg to last the rest of their lives. That’s to say nothing of the farmhands who toil away in the low minors for meager wages—the starving artists of the sport.
Baseball players are musicians now, and the sooner they fully realize it, the sooner they’ll be able to start building the sort of generational wealth previously reserved for team owners—and, more recently, stars in other corners of the entertainment universe.
So, by the time you read this, I’ll probably be sitting in my favorite spot at Yankee Stadium: the lower part of the upper deck, just to the side of home plate. And I’ll be rooting for Aaron Judge to not only hit a grand slam, and to get that new contract—but to land a spot on the cap table whatever hot startup comes along next.
You just read Chapter 4: The Accidental Musicians (Part 7), a serialized segment of my new book, We Are All Musicians Now. Subscribe here. For more, check out my other books and follow me on Twitter and Instagram.