Selig calls team in pennant race and making money “economically not tolerable”

It happens every spring. And summer, for the All-Star break, and winter, for the World Series. MLB commissioner Bud Selig talks to the press, and he invariably takes the opportunity to explain why one team or another really really neeeeeeeeeeds a new stadium.

This week, it was the Tampa Bay Rays‘ turn, and Selig pulled out all the adjectival stops in declaring the team a disaster and a new stadium the solution:

“It is beyond disappointing,” Selig said Tuesday. “You cannot ask a franchise to continue, when they have been so competitive and really, really done a marvelous job, in a situation that is economically not tolerable.”…

He called the Rays’ attendance “very disappointing and very worrisome,” citing their average 17,791, which ranks 29th in the majors (ahead of only Miami) and well below the overall average of 30,268.

“Look at their club in the major leagues and it’s competitive, and is averaging 18,000 people a game,” he said. “That may have been okay in 1956, but it’s not okay today.”…

“There’s no question there’s a stadium problem,” Selig said. “There’s no debate about it. The question is what to do about it and when to do it and where, and those are conversations Mr. Sternberg and I will have.”…

“I have a very high level of frustration,” Selig said. “I think my patience is running as thin as his, if not more so. I don’t know what will happen with that; he and I need to have a lot more conversations.”

The Rays’ attendance numbers are dismal by modern MLB standards, there’s no doubt. And yet, the team is currently in the lead for the American League wild card, and is turning a profit of between $6 million and $26 million a year. (Yes, part of that is thanks to revenue sharing, but the whole point of revenue sharing is supposed to be to help smaller-market teams get a cut of the New York Yankees‘ riches, because everybody can’t play in New York.) And somebody has to be in last place in attendance, right?

In fact, that team is not the Rays, but as ThinkProgress’ Travis Waldron notes, another team that Selig not so long ago declared needed a new stadium to cure its attendance woes:

The bad news for both the Rays and St. Petersburg, though, is that blaming attendance woes on a “stadium problem” is exactly what Selig did in Miami just six years ago, when the Florida Marlins were looking to a new stadium to fix their sluggish attendance.

“I really believe that when you look at the demographics of South Florida, with a new stadium, that gives them a chance to be competitive, [the market works],” Selig said after stadium meetings in Miami in 2007, according to MLB.com. “After all, they are in a division where it’s not a secret, the Mets are building a new ballpark. Washington is moving into a new ballpark. Philadelphia is in a new ballpark, and Atlanta has a new ballpark. If I didn’t feel that South Florida was a market you can compete in, with the right stadium, I wouldn’t be here today.”

It’s certainly possible that the Rays would fare better in a new stadium than the Marlins: Stuart Sternberg certainly seems like he’d be more patient than to trade all of his decent players just a few months after opening a new building. But there are plenty of other examples of cities where new stadiums haven’t been a panacea either in the standings or at the gate: the Pittsburgh Pirates, say, where attendance at PNC Park has been about the same as it was at Three Rivers Stadium; or the Cincinnati Reds, with similar figures for their old and new ballparks. There’s inevitably a temporary bump in attendance from a new stadium, since people turn out just to gawk, but history has shown that that can last anywhere from a few weeks (the Marlins) to maybe eight years or so (the Cleveland Indians) before attendance returns to background levels.

But anyway, Selig says he “cannot ask a franchise to continue” in the pennant race and making money year after year, so clearly he’s gonna do something. Or at least he’s hoping to spark headlines about how Tampa Bay will lose the Rays, their long-term lease and the near impossibility of folding the franchise notwithstanding. Oh, look, mission accomplished.


28 comments on “Selig calls team in pennant race and making money “economically not tolerable”

  1. It could just be that Tampa Bay is a bottom (or bottom-two) market out of all the MLB cities. If that’s the reality of the Rays’ situation, then that’s just how it is. Contraction is a non-starter, and there are no relocation options on the table at this point.

    I don’t think a new stadium on the Hillsborough side of the bay would change anything. The Rays will maybe see a bump of 10k or 12k over their current numbers in the first year, but those numbers will inevitably recede afterwards. I don’t think it will fall off the cliff like it did for the Marlins, but on the other hand, the novelty of the Rays in 1998 did wear off pretty dramatically the following year.

    I think it was Noah Pransky who noted this, but most of the younger Rays fans in the area are being brought up in an environment where rooting them on via TV is more acceptable than doing so in person. Assuming they start work on this new ballpark (a big if, of course), its opening day will come around the same time those young fans will be able to afford their first season tickets. I’d bet on a Marlins redux taking place in TB, rather than an extended run of big crowds like in Cleveland (or Seattle, to a lesser extent).

  2. The Mariners are actually now drawing worse than they did in their final years in the Kingdome. Even if you only count the years before 1995 when fans were supposedly energized by their first playoff appearance.

  3. The M’s have also been virtually unwatchable for the better part of the past decade… /sobs

  4. Oh, sure. But it’s arguable whether they’d be drawing much worse even if they were still at the dome. (Though they’d certainly be able to charge less for tickets.)

    One of the projects I’ve long wanted to do, but don’t really have the stats skills on my own, is to conduct a regression analysis to determine exactly how much a new stadium affects attendance, and team revenue, compared to what you’d have expected in the old stadium, given the team’s record, etc. I think the data points are there, but I’d need a co-author who actually understands the math involved … anyone?

  5. In 1998 when the Tampa Bay Devil Rays were born and began play in what is now known as Tropicana Field, Bud Selig was the commissioner of MLB. Apparently the stadium was good enough then, even before subsequent improvements, to be deemed an MLB caliber ball park. Maybe the fact the MLB and team owners were paid $155 million by the Tampa Bay Devil Rays ownership for ownership rights to the new franchise distorted Bud’s view of the facility back then.

    In 2013 Bud Selig is still commissioner and now, the improved ball park is not good enough, in Bud’s current view. Well then, Bud and Stu Sternberg can pay 100% for a new park and also pay the city of St. Petersburg whatever the penalty is for breaking the legally binding contract they have with the city through 2027. And, oh by the way, if Tampa Bay area unemployment continues at around 8%, the new stadium will not achieve satisfactory attendance either.

  6. I understand what you want to accomplish, but it’s tough thinking of an equation to figure it out. Also, another issue is equating ticket prices (which is impossible, we don’t know them), because then we can see if there was any situations where fans just wouldn’t shell out that much dough (we all know that has happened with the Yankees, so I’m sure it happened in at least a few other places)

    Also, the only team to clearly, undoubtedly benefit big time from a move was the Giants, especially when you consider they went from normal ticket prices to expensive ones, making the dramatically higher attendance staying even more impressive.

  7. “Also, the only team to clearly, undoubtedly benefit big time from a move was the Giants,…”

    Yeah, but you’d also have to take into account the presence of a guy named Bonds and what he was doing right about the time the new stadium opened. And then the team’s more recent on-field success. That kind of stuff makes Neil’s regression idea very tricky. Stadium had a significant impact, but it ain’t the whole story.

  8. Team Marketing Report does average ticket price estimates, so there’s some data there, even if it’s not perfect. It should be enough for a ballpark (sorry) guess, anyway.

    And agreed re the Giants, though I’d love to see (or even estimate) what the actual numbers are. It does help explain, though, why Magowan and Co. were willing to pay for their own stadium – they clearly had a hunch that getting out of Candlestick into a site people could actually get to was key to selling tickets.

  9. Agreed with Ryan re Giants, I mean.

    Keith, I’d want to include W-L record (both current season and previous seasons) as an independent variable, which would account for the Bonds Effect.

  10. Obviously, Bonds contributed to wins and losses, but the record chase went beyond that. The Giants were fairly miserable his last two seasons, when he passed Aaron.

  11. “It does help explain, though, why Magowan and Co. were willing to pay for their own stadium – they clearly had a hunch that getting out of Candlestick into a site people could actually get to was key to selling tickets.”

    It’s probably safe to create a rule-of-thumb based on this. “The more help a team requests, the less likely it’ll be a success.” The guys who own teams didn’t get there by being stupid.

  12. Scary thing is that the Ms are still turning a small-ish profit the occasional year, despite attendance and general performance not taking them into the post-season. Really makes me question how that “$200M in losses” accumulated prior to SafeCo Field being built (or, rather, how the accounting on that worked) because they keep using that $200M to avoid the profit sharing provisions they had with the public.

  13. Keith: The Giants still *requested*, pre-Magowan – they just got shot down by voters. There’s no way of knowing how many other owners would have gone ahead and built on their own if they’d been shot down for subsidies, but my guess is it’s a pretty small number.

  14. Neil,

    Not to be a naysayer, but boy does that type of analysis sound tough. You’d have to account for lowering capacity, national/local starpower, “The Fox Effect” (a.k.a. driving younger fans away from TV while at the same time driving them to the ballpark), MLS (which has been an accessory to murder in Seattle), etc. Plus you have the local oddities like the fact that a park in the middle of asphalt is essential in Milwaukee but would be terrible in Chicago.

    Getting back on topic, normally I am very pro-league on these stadium issues but Selig and Sternberg are just so full of it. You trash your own stadium, you charge D.C. prices in a market that’s closer to Milwaukee, you don’t even pretend like you’re willing to lose money to keep stars and then you complain that it’s the stadium? Get real. Winning and drawing are two different things.

  15. “There’s no way of knowing how many other owners would have gone ahead and built on their own if they’d been shot down for subsidies, but my guess is it’s a pretty small number.”

    If they’re shot down everywhere, that number is 100%. You gotta have a place to play. It’s the reason why the whole stadium subsidy thing is such a complete waste.

  16. “It’s the reason why the whole stadium subsidy thing is such a complete waste.”

    But mayors and governors will never agree, tacitly or otherwise, to stop handing out money to billionaires because of politics and stupidity (of which there is probably significant overlap on a Venn diagram of those two things).

  17. Keith: They gotta have a place to play. They don’t gotta have a *new* place to play. Minneapolis and Miami are excellent examples of cities that turned down stadiums repeatedly, and the owners didn’t then offer to spend their own money.

  18. “But mayors and governors will never agree, tacitly or otherwise, to stop handing out money to billionaires because of politics and stupidity…”

    Yep. Since this kind of thing corrupts the free flow of economic activity (it’s kind of an ass-backward twin of [prohibited] import taxes between states), you’d hope Congress would invoke the Commerce Clause to end it – but there’s that politics and stupidity thing again.

    “They don’t gotta have a *new* place to play.”

    Eventually they do. And until then they’d do renovations and upgrades to their existing facilities – just like most other bricks-and-mortar businesses. We really have no way of knowing how often teams would upgrade and to what extent as long as there’s the hope of a handout.

  19. Right. I just meant that just because the Giants built new when denied subsidies doesn’t mean that all other team owners would. You’d have new stadiums here and there, but not every team every 20-30 years like you do now.

  20. True, Neil, but you might have more ‘new’ stadia than we think. And I’d bet those new facilities would be a whole lot cheaper than the palaces constructed with OPM. I’m not saying there isn’t value to having higher end amenities (that you can charge fans more for)… but needs/wants change a lot when someone else is paying. The improved amenities would only be built if they could actually be paid for by revenues… which is as it should be.

    Just a question re: your math request: Isn’t it going to be nearly impossible to determine the net impact of new buildings when the extent of the public subsidies (ongoing ones like operating cost caps/sharing and capital improvement cost sharing etc) provided may not even be known by the cities that offer them?

    Or are you looking at this mainly from an “income from fans” perspective?

  21. Keith: I’ve always wondered about the interstate commerce thing too… somehow baseball’s limited antitrust exemption appears to have expanded to include, well, nearly everything as it turns out…

  22. Not really about the antitrust exemption, the argument applies to any subsidies that entice a particular business to move/not move across state lines.

  23. Rayz have nowhere to go that would be a significant improvement above what they’re in now, they’re stuck.
    Selig trots out the same tired “threats” at the same times of year in robotic fashion, does anybody (who actually knows the biz, unlike the newz media – especially locals – looking for a storyline) really take him seriously anymore?
    Doubt it.

  24. MLB are such amateurs at the stadium cash con game. They trot a charmless dork like Selig out there to sell the F.U.D. and he’s just so minor league compared to our guys Rooney and Goodell. When they steam into town in the first class car on the Yourteamismoving Fear Train, the press stands up and salutes, along with the mayor and all the other pols we’ve purchased. Our minions get busy whipping public sentiment into shape and buying votes behind the scenes.

    We’ve developed that L.A. make-believe stadium into the real deal in the minds of millions, and we run interference with it to pot after pot of publicly funded gold. What’s the last place MLB threatened to move to, Charlotte? Salt Lake? Poughkeepsie? lol. They should hire us as consultants on these deals–we are the freakin’ pros from Dover when it comes to stadium funding extortion tactics, baby!

  25. Selig cannot be taken seriously on the Rays issue. Why? Two reasons. 1: Look at the A’s, they do not have 14 years left on their lease, and they are not moving into a New Stadium yet. If Selig cannot handle what should be an easier case, how can he be expected to get the Rays out of the Dome? 2: He will not be Commissioner that much longer, so it will be that person’s responsibility. Basically, you can wake me up in 2020, and we can start this discussion over again (assuming Tax Legislation is not passed to make it harder to do so). By then at least some (if not all) of these Teams/Schools will have Stadiums/Arenas built or under construction: Rams, Raiders, Chargers, A’s, Warriors, Red Wings, Calgary Flames, DC United, New York Expansion Soccer Team, and even Colorado State University. Basically, the Rays are at the back of the pack

  26. If Selig was really as peeved as he says he is, then MLB could EASILY shell out the money for a new stadium & fix the “problem”.
    Stop pestering the people & government of Florida just because they don’t meet your unrealistic standards, former car salesman Bud Selig. They don’t care. New stadiums got built in D.C. & Miami because of crooked politicians. Somebody has to be last.

  27. Neil, The regression shouldn’t be too difficult for an individual city; you would just need to add a structural break variable to account for the change between the old and new stadium so long as you have a long enough time series to do a valid regression. Other possible variables could be average ticket price, wins (or losses), playoff appearances, local GDP growth, inflation… Thoughts?