Merriam Webster’s defines “thrifty” as “thriving by industry and frugality.” This is a word more often used to describe a smart shopper or a business that keeps an eye on costs, and usually has a negative connotation in sports. But as Tampa Bay Buccaneers fans, we have seen a shift in recent years to a more frugal approach to player salaries. The front office had been leaving room under the salary cap, not spending every last penny, and not pushing the boundaries of the collective bargaining agreement. So when does “cheap” turn into “thrifty”? When does pinching pennies turn from a frustrating lack of effort into a brilliant stroke of business genius?
One example of thrifty sporting success was seen this morning, as Swansea City, a Welsh soccer team playing in the Barclay’s Premier League, won the Capital One Cup, a nationwide competition in knockout format that pits every team in the top 4 levels of the soccer structure in one big tournament. There is no American sports equivalent to the League Cup, as it’s traditionally known; it most closely resembles the NIT in college basketball. The Swans were on the verge of shutting down 10 years ago, at the bottom of the soccer pyramid in the UK and in financial distress. They fought their way back, led by a distinct playing style and a smart business sense of Chairman Huw Jenkins. They turn profits in a league full of investors who throw money at teams hoping for glory and fame. And today, they won a trophy to justify their shrewd business sense.
The Tampa Bay Rays are another example, working out of the same small market at the Buccaneers, and finding success on the field with aggressive, novel approaches to lineups, pitching, defense, and player development. The Rays are at the bottom financially of a loaded division with big market teams and heavy spending general managers. But they contend for the division title every season, and even enjoyed a World Series berth.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers play in a league with team salary caps and floors, and the teams that finish at the bottom of the salary charts are usually wildly unsuccessful. Check out this infographic of NFL team salaries (courtesy of osmguy.com), and see if you notice a trend about the teams on the bottom (click on the image to see it full size):
The Bengals are the only team in the bottom 5 to make the playoffs, and the 3 bottom teams were 3 of the 4 worst teams in the 2012 season. The large drop in salary from the Titans to the Eagles, and then the larger drop to the Chiefs and Jaguars, reveals just how far behind the competition a team can be when they fail to spend money. So where does that leave the Buccaneers?
There are teams near the bottom who have shown success in recent years, but they all have strong identities. The Bengals are a scrappy team with good pass defense. The Seahawks are a hard hitting team that plays with a great physical edge. The Packers and Broncos are teams with great pass rushing and veteran quarterbacks. The Buccaneers have question marks surrounding their identity, and 2013 is an opportunity to answer those questions. Can Josh Freeman be the signal caller the Bucs need to use the explosive weapons at his command? Can the pass defense step up and keep the offense in the game, and not allow big plays in key situations? Can the run defense recreate its 2012 success with the likely departures of Roy Miller, Quincy Black, and Michael Bennett? Can Doug Martin avoid a sophomore slump?
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are building up a team the right way, bringing in impact rookies and signing smart free agents over the past few years, but they must continue to build the franchise back up to playoff standards. The window for success in the NFL is never guaranteed to be long, so if the Buccaneers plan to spend smart in the 2013 offseason, they need to be more like the Rays or Swansea City, and less like small spenders who just collect a paycheck with a weak product on the field.