Monday, 9 November 2009

IN NEW YORK, MONEY TALKS...

It's been a big week in the Big Apple. On Tuesday, Michael Bloomberg was elected to his third term as mayor of New York. The next night, the New York Yankees won their 27th World Series baseball championship, their first since 2000, to cap off their inaugural season in the brand-new Yankee Stadium. The next day, Happy Days Were Here Again on Wall Street as the Yankees celebrated with an old-fashioned ticker-tape parade. Behind the triumphalist cheering, the reality implicit in the imagery was easy for most New Yorkers to miss, as plain as a Leni Reifenstahl film to those of us outside the five boroughs.

Once upon a time, the tape cascading down from the windows of the financial institutions (in the days when such windows actually opened), came from the tickers of the brokers and merchant bankers. It was a tangible, if disposable, symbol celebrating the triumph of another old-fashioned American value: the power of cash. New York may have been the epicenter of the world's financial meltdown just a few short months ago, but you wouldn't have known it last week. It was as if Wall Street were celebrating, not just the Yankees' win, but the triumph of money itself. Because both the Yankees and Bloomberg, who made his fortune providing Wall Street's news, gained success by following a simple formula: outspend your opposition, outspend them by huge margins, and then keep on spending like it's 1999.

Some baseball traditionalists poo-poohed the idea that this Yankee win was a product of financial leverage. After all, they said, the Yankees have had baseball's largest payroll for each of the past eleven seasons, and for the last eight seasons had not won a championship, despite spending a total of $1.4 billion on player salaries in that time, roughly $500m more than their closest competitors. If money could buy success, the Yankees would never have been beaten.

Similarly, political analysts pointed to a lackluster campaign run by Bloomberg's Democratic opponent, William Thompson. A more fiery candidate, with better backing from his party, could have easily overcome a 14-1 deficit in campaign spending. Exactly how no one really explained.

Bloomberg, who had earlier campaigned for term limits, and then overturned them to allow himself another run, was, for this campaign, rebranded from Michael, New York Democrat turned Republican, to 'Mike', tough Conservative and just your simple average billionaire next door; an urban, Jewish Shrub Bush. 'Mike' became the predominant one-word identification on his campaign posters, as if he were already as iconic a figure as, Cher, Madonna, Roseanne or, say, Stalin. There was more than a hint of Stalinism (in a capitalist version) in the prospect of 'Mike' buying his way into perpetual rulership of the city. Since Republicans are outnumbered in the five boroughs by a margin almost as large as Bloomberg's spending advantage, this cult of the individual served to create an aura of inevitability about his re-election. Success was portrayed as breeding success, a self-fulfilling prophecy which worked to restrain the campaigning of some Democratic officials, especially those who have to work with the mayor, on behalf of their own candidate.

This season the Yankees' best-paid player, the steroid-stained Alex Rodriquez, received $33m. This was less than four million dollars short of the entire team payroll for the Florida Marlins. Like Bloomberg, Rodriquez is known by his nickname, A-Rod (or, after his steroid use became public, A-Roid). He too has been rebranded: from drugs cheat, serial adulterer, Madonna trophy-stud, and selfish choker of previous failed Yankee teams, to all-around nice guy and team leader of the current champions. In fact, it's hard to recall such a complete turnaround from the tabloid press, at least not since Princess Diana's tragic death turned her overnight from international slut and object of journalistic scorn to the people's saint.

Rodriquez and fellow sluggers Derek Jeter and Mark Texieira combined to rake in $75.2m in salary, more than the total payrolls of 16 teams. Throw in the Yankees' three top pitchers, for another $46.7 million, and the team's' six biggest stars earned $121.9m, slightly more than all 25 Boston Red Sox. And the Red Sox had the fourth biggest payroll in baseball! Texieira and pitcher CC Sabathia were considered the two best players available in last winter's free agent market; the Yankees, of course, signed them both.

They can do this because they have huge resources available to them, primarily their own subscription TV channel offering the team's games at premium prices to the nation's biggest television market. The brand-new Yankee Stadium boasts the highest ticket prices in baseball. Where the original stadium looked like a temple from the outside, the new version resembles a faceless bank or, yes, Stalinist ministry, as if 'Mike' had ordered the federal reserve moved up to the Bronx. It is the House That Ruth Built on steroids, its exterior swollen by massive walkways leading from 'shopping experience' to 'eating experience', the concrete paths already cracked as if the stadium itself were rebelling against being turned into a mall with a 'baseball experience' in its piazza. 

The playing field itself has been shrunken, like a steroid abuser's testicles, to bandbox proportions, a home-run friendly design which, in fairness, echoes the Babe Ruth-friendly proportions of the original. It may be garish, it may be expensive, but it's New York's, it's a winner, and New Yorkers have proven they will pay to follow a winner. In some cases any winner. Many of those celebrity fans devoted in the 1980s to the then-edgier stars of New York's other baseball club, the Mets, switched long ago to the more successful Yankees. We're lookin' at you, Spike Lee. The Mets have a new stadium of their own, Citi Field, sponsored by a bank, and built, like Yankee Stadium, next door to its predecessor. Sadly, Shea Stadium was located, like the New York World's Fair for which it was built, in the flight path to LaGuardia Airport, and the modern version echoes the same sense of planned obsolescence of the original.

Bloomberg seems to have internalised the Yankee blueprint. According to figures released 10 days before the election, he had already spent more than $85 million on his campaign. Those tracking the huge flood of advertising as election day closed in estimated Bloomberg's final spending total to come in around $110m. Of course Bloomberg, whose personal fortune is estimated at $16 billion, can afford it. The hapless Thompson had spent a mere $6m a week before the election—Bloomberg's 14-1 spending advantage is likely to have widened in the campaign's final week.

It doesn't seem to worry Americans that winning election as mayor of New York costs only half a much as winning the 'world' championship of baseball. And it certainly doesn't bother New Yorkers, who have an old saying: 'money talks and bullshit walks'. Let the losers gather the bovine droppings. New Yorkers don't worry that the Yankees' payroll of $208 million dollars was about 50% more than baseball's second most-expensive team. Especially because that team, with a payroll of $136m, was, of course, the Mets. It may have puzzled the perennially disappointed Mets fans, the hard core who haven't followed the herd to the Bronx. But it probably pleased many non-New Yorkers that at least the Mets didn't even make the post-season playoffs (nor did the team with the third-highest payroll, Chicago's perennially hapless Cubs). It may also be reassuring for non-New Yorkers to assume that, for now, 'Mike' Bloomberg has no Presidential ambitions. At least not this week. After all, most of the country are not Yankee fans. And can't necessarily be bought, not even by a winner.

1 comment :

Vernon Malcolm said...

Thomspon should get a recont the way the Rpuglicuns are takling back all those seats and Ram Imamuel must resign because he abandonded THompson!