February 1, 2001
The Imbalance Sheet
When Baltimore Ravens owner Heartless Art Modell stood at the podium in Tampa Bay Sunday night and said that the Vince Lombardi Trophy belonged to the people of Baltimore and the state of Maryland, he wasn't kidding: they paid for his stadium, his team, and arguably his salary and the increase in his net worth, all with tax proceeds from one of the greatest sweetheart deals any sports team in the world has ever landed.
Of course, looting the public till to fund the private enterprises of professional sports is nothing new, and baseball itself has had its share of scams in the name of questionable public benefits. From the Mariners' razor-thin (and debatable) margin of victory in their fifth trip to the ballot box and their subsequent attempts to renege on a pledge to cover stadium cost overruns, to Pennsylvania's Immaculate Deception, in which the state legislature ignored the decisive vote against public funding for new stadiums for the Pirates and Steelers, baseball owners are unable to survive without the opiate of the sports.
But now the piper has come to collect his pay, and the same baseball owners who conned local and state governments into paying for bloated monuments to the ease with which taxpayers can be hoodwinked are now crying poverty. First we heard the Diamondbacks bleating about a cash crunch, complete with administrative layoffs, followed by a series of moronic, extravagant free-agent signings at a time when the team should be trying to improve the efficiency of its player expenditures. Now, Detroit Tigers owner Mike Ilitch has rescinded his pledge to increase the payroll after promising fans and players that a new stadium would mean bigger budgets for player acquisition.
Indeed, with the AL Central wide open in 2001--color me unimpressed by the Ellis Burks and David Wells acquisitions--now would have been an opportune time for Ilitch to loosen his purse strings and acquire at least one big-time pitcher. The Tigers' move to pare a little salary by trading Brad Ausmus and Doug Brocail to the Astros brought in more talent than it cost the team, so the Tigers should have even had a small surplus in the player budget before factoring in any potential increases. If the fans paid for a new stadium expecting to see a contender, Ilitch is washing his first good opportunity for a CoPa champion (indeed, the first good opportunity since 1987 for a Detroit champion) down the St. Lawrence River.
There are two possible explanations for Ilitch's sudden reluctance to spend, although the secrecy that surrounds baseball teams' accounting will likely leave us in the dark as to which is correct. (Anyone in the Tigers' front office with something to say on this is welcome to e-mail me.) The first possibility is that the team is truly at its limit for player expenditures, meaning they pulled a fast one on the fans by claiming that a new stadium would mean contention when all it meant was survival. The second is that the Tigers are making good money in CoPa and have little to gain financially from a good season, so Ilitch decided to pocket the extra money instead, a move popularly known as "pulling a Tribune."
With more new stadiums coming on line in 2001 and 2002, many more campaign promises will be shattered by an inability or an unwillingness to increase budgets for player salaries. Mind you, I'm not arguing that increasing player salaries is necessary or desirable, but when a stadium is won on the back of a promise, the owner needs to keep that promise if he wants to have any credibility when the next labor war begins, or if he wants to maintain fans when his team continues to fare poorly in the standings.
So baseball, like the NFL, may now get to reap what it sows. Owners have long pointed to new stadiums as panaceas for their financial and on-field ills, claiming that they needed the revenues from the skyboxes and the novelty effect to allow them to compete effectively in the talent market. Now those same owners are largely finding themselves unwilling to spend enough to match the top-spending teams, or spending money on all the wrong players. When PNC Park draws 8,000 for a September game as the Pirates chase the 100-loss mark this year, will people finally realize that it's not the stadium or the market--it's the owner?
Keith Law is an author of Baseball Prospectus. You can contact him by clicking here.