Who is really benefitting from Shapiro-Atkins tandem’s competitive advantage?
Photo credit:© Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports
1 month ago
It was no surprise when Blue Jays’ president Mark Shapiro hammered home that Ross Atkins will return as the general manager of the Toronto Blue Jays at his end-of-season media availability earlier this week.
Even if some fans were hoping for Shapiro to dismiss Atkins, it would have been an uncharacteristic move given the duo’s lengthy history. Shapiro and Atkins have been at the helm of the Jays front office for nearly a decade through thick and thin. At this point, nothing was going to tear this tandem apart. But here’s the bad news: Shapiro-Atkins duo may not necessarily be here to win the World Series.
Granted, Shapiro and Atkins oversaw the Jays’ rebuild from 2017 and 2019 and led the team to playoffs three times between 2020 to 2023. There’s no argument for the fact that the two executives smoothly transitioned out of a rebuilding era fairly quickly. The only problem is that the Jays have been swept each time they made it to the playoffs and the team continually shows similar flaws. Fans were promised improvement each time their frustrations erupted after a sweep. In the end, this version of the Blue Jays hasn’t been able to achieve the goal of winning the World Series.
Despite the perplexing playoff runs from the Jays, Shapiro and Atkins led a successful renovation of the Rogers Centre which created more fan-friendly spaces such as Corono Rooftop, Park Social and the Outfield District. As the Jays recorded another winning season in 2023 with an 89-73 record, Rogers Centre recorded 3 million fans. All was well financially with every project Shapiro and Atkins supervised. In other words, they delivered increasing revenues for Rogers Communications, the owner of the team.
This tandem is vastly interested in creating and maintaining a competitive team. Winning is in their best interest. Having millions of fans consistently visiting is every owner and executive’s dream. But how much winning are they interested in is the question we have to ask because just enough winning may be the real aim for some owners and executives.
When Shapiro and Atkins came in 2015, they sold Jays’ owner Rogers Communications the idea of building a sustainable winner just like the Los Angeles Dodgers. On the surface, this is a very alluring proposition because the Dodgers always have a flawless winning record and make it to the playoffs consistently. They may only have one World Series win under their belt, it’s almost guaranteed that they are still reaching the playoffs. The problem with this type of vision is that neither the owner nor the front office may be interested in winning it all.
It’s not hard to make a case against going all in. Just look at the Washington Nationals. After a few years of frustrations and disappointment in the playoffs, they finally won the World Series in 2019. However, they practically tore everything apart in only two years as their so-called contention window closed. Investing in the philosophy of “going all in” can be costly. Former Jays general manager Alex Anthopolous went all in to help the Jays make a successful playoff run but even that effort fell short and left the farm system high and dry.
Now compare that to building a sustainable winner. It’s much less agonizing than seeing a team blow things up spectacularly after winning one championship. This philosophy looks much more exhilarating for fans too since they also get to see more winning games instead of enduring endless pain. But let’s remember that this is all in theory.
Theoretically, the idea of a “sustainable winner” sounds like a win-win for both the front office and fans. The only issue with this idea in practice is that it has created much more frustration in reality. Fans were supposed to watch more winning baseball games that led to successful and long playoff runs for multiple years, but this still hasn’t happened in Toronto just yet (at least after 2016). So, naturally, the front office failed to deliver on their vision from the fans’ perspective.
The not-so-good news for the fans is that the Shapiro-Atkins duo has the duty to deliver to the owner more. This inherently makes sense because Rogers Communications holds the key to everything. They are the ones who enable the front office to do their jobs and all they really need is enough revenues. Would it be beneficial if Rogers Centre hosted more playoff games from a revenue perspective? Definitely. But would it make that much of a difference in revenues as a whole? From Rogers Communications’ perspective, probably not since the Blue Jays organization is just one of many revenue channels they own.
Ultimately, only Shapiro, Atkins and Edward Rogers will know which vision they agreed upon. But it shouldn’t come as a surprise if they aren’t going all in because fans’ vision of winning a championship may not be theirs. It’s a scary thought, but it is a possibility that fans have to consider as they look to the 2024 season.
As Shapiro confirmed Atkins’ return for the 2024 season, he highlighted that continuity and authority are a competitive advantage when building a sports franchise. He even praised Atkins’ body of work for taking the Jays to the playoffs in three of the last four seasons. What we need to ask here is what “competitive advantage” really means and who it serves. Does it serve fans and is the front office willing to win it all? Or are they really there to throw out the phrase “competitive advantage” only to serve the owner who’d like to see a steady revenue stream?
This is not just a Jays question. It’s also a question many fans grapple with around different sports teams. Many fans want their team to win but also win the final trophy as many times as possible. The unfortunate part is that that vision doesn’t always align with the owners’ objectives. That said, it’s still possible to keep both fans and owners happy. Just look at the Philadelphia Phillies.
President of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski made bold moves to improve the team while making deep playoff runs on top of helping the team record a winning regular season. Maybe he’s lucky that the Phillies owner John Middleton is all in on the vision of winning a championship. The Phillies’ case proves that it’s not completely impossible to please everyone in such a tough industry.
The Jays are at a crossroads as they aim to run things back in 2024. They can focus on their pre-planned vision for the owner to continue bringing in consistent revenue while maintaining an efficient and good-not-great team on the field. Or they can choose to go all to win it all for once while not compromising on their vision for anyone. If continuity and authority are the cornerstones of this club, they now need to prove that this philosophy is the one for everyone.
Believe it or not, the Jays still have a bright future. Whether they’ll squander that potential or not, that’s really up to Shapiro and Atkins.
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