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Reaction to the Arizona Diamondbacks’ recent decision to increase the
team’s debt load by $20 million has been loud and unanimous: the sky is,
once again, falling. How could one of baseball’s "most
successful" teams–a defending divisional champion–find itself in
need of cash? As you might expect, there’s a lot more to this news than
meets the eye or, in this case, a lot less than the commentators in
question would have you believe.

Americans are funny when it comes to debt. When investing, they often
decry it, see it as a bad sign, and worry about the interest the company
must pay. Yet when conducting their own personal finances, Americans
routinely pay interest rates on their credit cards that nearly violate
United States usury laws and that would seem unreasonable to Tony Soprano.

In the corporate world, any CFO worth his salt will tell you that you
should always carry some debt. Debt has the beneficial effect of boosting
the return a company gives to its shareholders. It does this via two
mechanisms:

  • Debt provides a company with additional capital to invest. The capital
    comes at a fixed price; right now, between seven and eight percent for the
    most creditworthy companies. If the company can find a use for that capital
    that returns more than the interest rate–say, 10%–then borrowing the
    funds and making the investment is a no-brainer. The 2-3% earned above the
    cost of the interest is pure profit to the shareholders, who didn’t have to
    pony up any extra capital but suddenly saw their profits rise.

  • The U.S. government’s labyrinthine tax code allows a U.S. company to
    deduct most of the interest it pays on corporate borrowings. For example, a
    company that pays taxes at a 35% rate and that pays $7 million a year in
    interest (7% per year on $100 million of debt) would reduce its tax payment
    to the government by $2.45 million each year.

Furthermore, $20 million in debt is infinitesimal when we’re discussing a
baseball team. If a high-revenue team like the Diamondbacks is worth $250
million (a conservative figure, in light of recent franchise sales and the
fee Colangelo Inc. paid for the expansion franchise) then adding $20
million in debt barely budges the team’s debt/equity ratio. Even if Arizona
already had $100 million in debt–and I haven’t seen any press estimates
that placed their current load that high–their new debt/equity ratio would
still be under 0.5, which is a very safe level for a firm with solid
financial prospects. The annual interest payments on the debt in question
will be under $2 million, or less than a third of what the Snakes pay
Jay Bell for 162 games of mediocrity each season.

What’s notable about the Diamondbacks’ call for cash is that one of the
great spenders among high-payroll teams has found out that laying out all
that cash doesn’t pay on the field or at the till. The D’backs were widely
criticized for buying a pennant last year, but much of the team’s heavy
spending has now come back to bite Jerry Colangelo on his sunburned ass:
Bell, Matt Williams, Travis Lee, Todd
Stottlemyre
, Armando Reynoso, Matt Mantei and Tony
Womack
all look like white elephants right now.

If the Diamondbacks are really in tight financial straits, it’s good news
for the game, because it should serve as a warning to other owners that
there are limits to how much poor investing the fans will cover through
luxury-box and merchandising revenues.

Keith Law can be reached at klaw@baseballprospectus.com.