Other than the banking business, is there an industry more dependent on government handouts, sweetheart tax breaks, and accounting gimmicks than major league baseball?
What other than a baseball depletion allowance explains the economics of a team like the New York Yankees, which is paying Alex Rodriguez $275 million over ten years while building a new $1.3 billion stadium and charging front row season tickets holders $800,000 for a box of four seats?
If the rules of baseball included free enterprise, the Yankees would be playing on a diamond in Central Park, and skyboxes (which would not be deductible business expenses) would be limited to nearby apartment buildings.
What accounts for all the growth in baseball economics — the salaries, the extortionate ticket prices, the new stadiums — is that the game varies little from some nineteenth century oligopoly trust, not unlike J.P. Morgan’s railroads or Andrew Carnegie’s steel mills.
Let’s start with the basics: Since 1922, baseball has enjoyed anti-trust exemption, which means that league owners (best understood as robber barons) cannot move teams about willy-nilly. At the same time, the law makes it nearly impossible for competitors to establish rival competing franchises.
The Yankees coughed up $1.3 billion for their new Yankee Stadium (of which local and state government are in for about $520 million) with the knowledge that neither the Royals nor the Pirates are allowed to move their home games to the Bronx or Brooklyn.
The reason state and municipal governments — not just in New York, but all over the country — put taxpayer money into stadium white elephants is because voters identify more passionately with their professional teams than they do with their local politicians. Imagine the vote in New York if the choice was between Derek Jeter and Governor David Patterson?
Just because modern baseball is fixed with more precision than the 1919 World Series was does not mean that the game (or at least a number of its teams) will not someday go bankrupt.
Anti-trust exemptions, Tammany Hall municipal bond financings, and incestuous cable franchise awards may explain why teams like the New York Mets feel that they can spend $12 million a year on pitcher Oliver Perez. But it does not mean that they will be able to cover their obligations when the economy goes O-for-August (as once happened to Darryl Strawberry).
To best understand baseball economics, think of the sport as similar to the investment banking business: a few large market firms (that have monopoly pricing power and cozy government relations) and then a lot of boutique establishments betting the franchise on some out-of-the-money option (Milton Bradley, Alfonso Soriano, and Alex Rios come to mind). The 2009 payroll for the Yankees is $201 million; for the Florida Marlins, it’s $36 million.
To close the gap between rich and poor teams, municipalities from Philadelphia ($173 million) to Seattle ($392 million) have subsidized new stadiums, on the hope that sky-boxed, sellout crowds will allow team owners, usually mayoral pals, to pay for free agents. In turn, winning teams are to do for the local economy what the stimulus money may fail to achieve, namely, provide faith in the political system and interest cover for outstanding municipal bonds.
Keep in mind that the baseball season is shorter than that for gladiolas. Many teams are out of the playoffs by July 4th, which means that the big, revenue-paying crowds must be attracted in the first three months of the season...when Kansas City fans still believe that they have a chance. Not long ago a double header between the Reds and Pirates started and ended with about seventy-five, yes that's 75, fans in the stadium.
Is it any wonder that the players union and many team managements, the Yankees included, turned a blind eye to steroids in order to pump up their products? In banking, executives went into sub-prime, hedge funds, and pyramid schemes to cover their bonuses. In baseball, the clear and the cream explain how the owners figured they would be able to afford the likes of Manny Ramirez.
No one quite knows the precise debt figures of major league baseball, but the liability side of the balance sheet looks something like this: the league itself funds money-losing teams with a revolving line of credit, drawn against anticipated television rights. That’s like borrowing against next year’s equity in a house that has yet to be built.
As for team debts, some franchises backload free agent contracts in order to defer liabilities until a new general manager may be on the job or the team has won a wild card game. Plus many teams have huge debts on new stadiums and skyrocketing payrolls. Even the Detroit Tigers, who play in a ghost town, run up $115 million per year.
By my calculations, the Tigers would have to attract an average of about 40,000 fans per game, paying $35 a ticket, just to break even. In 2008, they averaged 25,000 fans a game, and I bet a lot of the unemployed autoworkers who attended didn’t pay $35 a ticket. Some of the debt service for the new Detroit stadium needs to be covered with casino money from an Indian reservation. (Pete Rose’s problem was that he played in casinos but did not own one.)
To be sure, the plug figures in major league baseball’s finances are the local and national television contracts, not to mention the intramural luxury tax that has rich teams helping out the poor. National television revenue amounts to about $400 million per year, much of which is shared with the teams. That’s another attraction of anti-trust exemption; it limits supply. Why share the pie with, say, a hundred owners?
Total revenue in the sport is about $6 billion, or an average of $200 million per major league team. Overall, baseball economics would work only if fans were prepared to spend $200 per game on warm beer and cold hot dogs, and renew cable television subscriptions to get games that have little meaning after July.
The model is also predicated on the assumption that corporations can write off $800,000 in season ticket subscriptions, that the Internet does not blow away TV ads, and that Mariners fans will show up in September to watch their $99 million team wallow 10 games out of first place.
If I had to bet on an MLB franchise going broke, my action would be on the Mets, who after all play in the House That Sub-prime Built, “Citi Field.”
Not only did the owners, the Wilpon family, bet the ranch with Bernie Madoff, but they also spent $850 million on the new ballpark, and $25 million (over four years) on the likes of second baseman Luis Castillo. Attendance is down about 20 percent from 2008, and that’s before the team collapsed in the standings or bankrupt ex-Met Lenny Dykstra started sleeping in his car.
Of course, baseball is no more exposed to the vagaries of the free market than is the banking business. Federally-funded banks, for example, can discount government-granted cable contracts, and pump money into the sport. Or a city like Washington can bailout another failing franchise, as it did with the Expos, and tax dollars can build a second $611 million stadium near the Potomac.
Anti-trust exempted owners can even mothball a few teams (as they tried to do to the Twins a few years back), and boost the revenue share in that manner. Think of Commissioner Bud Selig’s office as a variant on the Texas Railroad Commission.
Nevertheless, financial failure is nothing for baseball to dread. The only reason the Yankees could acquire Babe Ruth from the Red Sox in 1919 is because the Boston owner needed cash to invest in the Broadway show, “No, No, Nanette.” Maybe if they are squeezed, the Wilpons can swap Oliver Perez for some of their Madoff paper? At the very least they could get behind the sure hit, “Bye, Bye, Bernie.”
Matthew Stevenson was born in New York, but has lived in Switzerland since 1991. He is the author of, among other books, Letters of Transit: Essays on Travel, History, Politics, and Family Life Abroad. His most recent book is An April Across America. In addition to their availability on Amazon, they can be ordered at Odysseus Books, or located toll-free at 1-800-345-6665. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.