December 7, 2001
The Numbers (Part One)
Shortly before Commissioner Bud Selig's testimony before Congress on December 6, Major League Baseball released the most detailed summary of team finances since the antitrust hearings of the 1950s. The complete summary can be found here.
According to the commissioner, MLB somehow managed to lose $519 million in 2001 despite record revenues of more than $3.5 billion. This claim was met with derision by virtually all independent observers. They note that franchise values have not fallen, and that even the owners of "failing" teams like the Expos and Marlins won't sell out unless they can remain in baseball with some other team.
Are the books cooked? If so, how? What can we learn from the owners' disclosures, be it what they want us to know, or what we can find by reading between the lines or putting the numbers in a fairer context?
This is the first in a series of analyses of the owners' financial disclosures. It begins with the left-most column, entitled "Regular Season Game Receipts." Although the scope of this category is not defined, it seems to include revenue from ticket sales but not luxury-suite rentals.
As such, it's one of the least controversial parts of the table. Gate receipts are easy to calculate, and hard to manipulate through related-party transactions. This column provides a rare direct look at a category of revenue which economists must usually estimate from two imperfect measures, attendance and average ticket price.
Attendance can mislead because of the different pricing strategies adopted by teams. Some teams price their tickets low to fill the stands, while others, playing in smaller parks that often sell out, take more money from fewer fans. In 2001, these extremes were represented by the Boston Red Sox and Los Angeles Dodgers. With the cheapest bleacher ticket at Fenway Park costing more than a field box seat at Dodger Stadium, Boston earned $39 million more at the gate despite playing before 400,000 fewer home fans.
Average ticket price is calculated on the unrealistic assumption that the team sells every available ticket at its face value. In fact, all teams discount some of their seats through group packages, "family nights," or other promotions. When the park is half empty, the mix of tickets actually sold can be quite different from the theoretical mix.
The table below, in which clubs are ranked by total game receipts, calculates the actual revenue per ticket generated by each major-league team in 2001. The right-most column shows how this figure differs from the average ticket price calculated by Team Marketing Report for use in its widely-reported Fan Cost Index.
Receipts: MLB financial disclosures.
Receipts: MLB financial disclosures.
For four teams--the Giants, Astros, Blue Jays and Devil Rays--actual revenue per ticket was at least 10% below the theoretical average ticket price. By contrast, the Reds, Phillies, and Angels earned at least 10% more than expected. Errors of this magnitude can throw off estimates of a club's profitability by $5 million or more.
The Yankees' rank should be no surprise: the combination of third-highest attendance and second-highest ticket price is hard to beat. However, The Red Sox's second-place finish casts doubt on the need for a new Fenway Park. The majors' smallest, most-expensive park already exemplifies modern stadium design philosophy, which creates scarcity (and with it, higher ticket prices) by reducing the number of available seats.
The Cardinals' seventh-place finish underscores the depth of local support for the team. In a division featuring three brand-new parks, a fourth under construction and the gem known as Wrigley Field, St. Louis had a $15 million revenue advantage over any of its rivals.
Below the eighth-place Braves, most of the remaining teams form revenue clusters. The #12 Dodgers have no business in this crowd; given their dominance of MLB's second-largest market, their high attendance and relatively low revenue suggest that Dodger tickets are underpriced.
The five teams in the middle of the pack send a sobering message to the "if we build it, they will come" school of new-stadium advocates. Among the Astros, Pirates, Diamondbacks, Brewers, and Tigers, the D'backs' four-year-old Bank One Ballpark is the oldest facility, yet all of these clubs earn far less than at least one divisional rival.
The next tier includes the Padres, Reds, and Phillies, all of whom will soon move into new parks. If the group above them provides any precedent, they'll get only a $10-$15 million boost at the gate. The Angels' #23 rank suggests that the Angels' marketing department may have come from Euro Disney, while the Blue Jays' paltry take illustrates how far a team can fall once the effects of a new park wear off. The on-field success of the A's is reflected in the turnstile count, but not yet in the team's bank account.
The usual suspects bring up the rear. Even in this company, the Expos stand out: total attendance barely half of the second-worst club, gate receipts $10 million lower than anyone else's. Thirteen minor-league teams played to larger average crowds. A relocated Expos franchise would be worth upwards of $200 million in Washington, D.C. or northern Virginia, even if it had to play at RFK Stadium for the first few years. Does anyone believe Bud Selig's testimony that MLB has no legal obstacle to such a move?
In my next column, we'll visit the magical world of local TV and radio contracts, where eight-figure sums can vanish in the blink of an eye...
Doug Pappas is chairman of SABR's Business of Baseball Committee. His writings on the subject are archived at http://roadsidephotos.com/baseball/. Although his early professional experiences included helping the USFL win $3 in its antitrust suit against the NFL and watching Bowie Kuhn flee to Florida one step ahead of his bankrupt firm's creditors, he continues to practice law in New York.