I’ve been trying to avoid the foofaraw over the leaked MLB financial documents, in part because I don’t believe even internal sports financial docs are worth the paper they’re printed on (cf. then-Toronto Blue Jays VP Paul Beeston’s famous statement, “Under generally accepted accounting principles, I can turn a $4 million profit into a $2 million loss, and I can get every national accounting firm to agree with me.”), but because they’re not really anything new. Forbes’ annual estimates of franchise profits had teams like the Pirates and Marlins raking in roughly the same amount as the leaked documents reveal — so if commentators are going to be up in arms that teams are turning a profit on revenue sharing money instead of spending in on player payroll, aren’t they a couple of years late?
That said, this latest from the ever-quotable Marlins president David Samson in today’s New York Times just cries out for comment:
Samson said the Marlins’ decision to maintain a modest payroll and trade a star like Miguel Cabrera after the 2007 season was to save money to help finance its $645 million, retractable-roof ballpark, which is to open in 2012. The team must pay about one-quarter of the cost, with Miami and Miami-Dade County providing the rest. “We could have had Cabrera, but no ballpark,” he said. “That’s what I tell fans.”
Samson didn’t say whether he tells fans this with a straight face, but you have to wonder. The Marlins are putting up about $160 million towards the new stadium, which comes to somewhere around $12 million a year in debt payments over 30 years. A large chunk of that is expected to come from naming rights, which the Marlins kept for themselves — even in today’s depressed market, something like $5 million a year in naming rights isn’t unreasonable — and another large chunk can come out of stadium revenues, which the Marlins also kept for themselves. The Fish are getting full control over a $645 million stadium for the bargain price of $160 million, and you don’t turn down a deal like that whether you’re saddled with a first baseman with a large contract or not.
On top of that, though, let’s take a look at Miggy’s contract itself: Under the extension he signed when he was traded to Detroit, the likely AL MVP candidate is set to earn $20 million and some change each year for the next six. That’s real money, certainly, but just like the Marlins’ stadium cash, it’s an investment, not just an expense: A prodigious slugger like Cabrera puts fannies in the seats, which puts dollars in the cash registers, and helps defray the cost of paying his salary.
Now, admittedly nobody’s coming to see the Marlins now, with or without Cabrera — but that’s all expected to change once the new stadium opens in 2012. (Or fervently hoped to change by Samson and Co., anyway.) So really, Cabrera is more worth the investment when you have a new stadium than without one, since suddenly having an attendance draw means you can actually draw attendance.
In other words, it would have been more honest for Samson to say: “Sorry, but we weren’t sure about this whole stadium thing back in 2007, so we figured we could make more money by dumping salary and collecting revenue-sharing checks than by trying to sell tickets to our invisible fan base. We’ll try to do better once the new stadium opens, if it looks like fans will actually show up to see star players.” That’s the kind of thing that makes you sound like a selfish plutocrat, though — so better to just blame your minimal stadium costs for forcing you to sell off your best players, even if it doesn’t make any economic sense.