Cuba will allow athletes to play overseas—but Major League Baseball is
still off limits
By Mike Jakeman December 28, 2013
Mike Jakeman is an editor with the Economist Intelligence Unit where he
focuses on Australia and Indonesia. He's also a sports writer and author
of a book on the future of cricket called "Saving the Test."
Until recently, it was impossible to make any real money as a baseball
player—or any other professional athlete—in Cuba. Under Fidel Castro,
sporting salaries and the reward they represent for individual
excellence were regarded as anti-socialist. Athletes, thus, were
regarded as state employees, just like teachers or agricultural
laborers, and were paid accordingly. Taking your skills abroad was off
limits and illegal. (Orlando "El Duque" Hernandez famously left on a
sailboat in 1998 with a group of ballplayers and docked in the Bahamas.)
But the wage disparity between Cuba and the rest of the baseball world
has forced reform. Official data on athletes' wages in Cuba is
undisclosed, but they are quoted in the media at around $10-$20 a month.
In In Major League Baseball (MLB) in the US, the average monthly salary
at the worst-paying club, the Houston Astros, was $68,000.
And so the defections from the Cuban National Series to the MLB
continue. Most notably, Aroldis Chapman received residency in the tiny
European country of Andorra en route to a $30 million contract with the
Cincinnati Reds in 2010, and Yasiel Puig received $42 million from the
Los Angeles Dodgers via a residency from Mexico. The final straw for the
Cuban authorities was Jose Abreu's signing with the Chicago White Sox
for $68 million in October. In the history of sporting transfers, these
are among the most politically charged. Footballer Luis Figo might have
had a pig's head thrown at him when he transferred from Barcelona to
Real Madrid, but he did not have to seek residency elsewhere.
Faced with a player exodus, the Cuban Baseball Federation has recognized
baseball as a profession, doubled the basic wage and provided financial
incentives for award-winners. It now also permits players to sign
contracts with foreign teams without defecting, provided that they
remain available for the domestic season, which runs between November
and April. The authorities hope that Cuban players will not head en
masse for leagues in Japan and Mexico, but that the liberalizing
measures will give them reason enough to stay and slow the talent drain
from in the National Series. Similar concessions were granted to Cuban
boxers, whose access to international fights and wages have been loosened.
The MLB, however, is still out of bounds. The Cuban authorities require
athletes to pay taxes on overseas earnings, while the US trade embargo
on Cuba prevents money exiting the US for that country. There is heavy
irony at play here. The major sports leagues in the US are more
egalitarian than their equivalents elsewhere in the West. Although
salaries at the very top of the MLB, NHL, NBA and NFL are huge—the
average annual New York Yankees salary is north of $7 million
annually—the leagues have all taken steps to maintain their competitive
balance, in a way that Castro might approve. The NHL has a fixed salary
cap whereby each team can only spend a proportion of the total revenue
of the league in the previous season. The NFL has the same system, but
also includes a minimum spend, too. The NBA also has a cap, but it is a
more permeable one: teams are allowed to exceed it in order to keep hold
of players that they had under contract before the agreement was signed.
The rules governing the burgeoning Major League Soccer are tighter
still, especially when compared with the liberalism of top football
leagues in Europe. The MLS proscribes a set squad size, a cap on the
total wage of the team, and also on remuneration of individual players,
with the exception of one "designated" player, a loophole that permitted
David Beckham to play for LA Galaxy, despite his exorbitant wage
demands. In the Premier League, Serie A, La Liga and the Bundesliga,
teams operate without any of these restrictions.
There is little consensus on whether salary caps work, partly because
there is also disagreement about what constitutes competitive balance.
How many different teams need to win a competition in a decade in order
for it to be considered exciting? Is the identity of the winner even
reflective of the strength of a tournament? In Cuba, these are questions
for the future. The first concern is keeping hold of the players that
draw the fans to the ballparks. The irony is that the model for the
Cuban authorities—the league in which all top baseball players want to
play but which keeps tight control over its team activities—the
MLB—remains a hostage to political fortune.
Follow Mike Jakeman on Twitter @mikejakeman. We welcome your comments at
Source: Cuba will allow athletes to play overseas—but Major League
Baseball is still off limits - Quartz -