The New York Times’ Ken Belson ran an article yesterday noting that Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez is annoyed that Miami Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria is set to sell his team for $1.2 billion after getting hundreds of millions of dollars in stadium subsidies from taxpayers:
“I would think he’ll walk away with $500 million in his pocket,” Mr. Gimenez said. “It sticks in my craw.”
The Marlins subsidy — which was for around $500 million in construction costs but which thanks to some terrible loan terms ended up costing taxpayers around $900 million in present-value terms — is worth being annoyed about, absolutely. But is Loria really getting a $500 million windfall as a result?
The numbers available are these:
- Loria bought the Marlins in 2002 for $158 million, $120 million of which he got as a payment from MLB for the Montreal Expos, which he’d previously owned.
- The reported sale price for the Marlins today is $1.2 billion, though a buyer hasn’t been settled on yet (and it apparently won’t be Derek Jeter and Jeb Bush after they couldn’t agree on who’d be in control).
- Belson reports that the Marlins are $400 million in debt, a widely reported number that it isn’t clear whether it’s stadium construction debt, money borrowed to pay payroll, or what.
So let’s say that Loria is set to walk away with $800 million in cash for a team that he spent $158 million on fifteen years ago, for a 406% profit, or an 11.41% annualized return on investment. Is that the result of getting a subsidized new stadium?
One of the difficulties of figuring out what sports teams are “worth” is they’re only sold infrequently, so we can’t exactly say what a normal appreciation of value looks like. There are a few data points, though: The best example we have over a similar time period is the Los Angeles Dodgers, which were sold by NewsCorp to Frank McCourt in 2004 for $430 million; McCourt turned around and sold the team to Magic Johnson and his partners in 2012 for $2 billion, which is an annualized return of 21.16% — all without getting a new stadium.
We can also look to the annual Forbes team value numbers, which are guesstimates at best but at least give us a league-wide baseline. In 2002 the average MLB team, according to the magazine, was worth $286 million. In 2017, with ten teams having opened new stadiums in the interim and 20 still playing in the same venues, that number is $1.54 billion — an annualized return of 11.87%, meaning Loria’s windfall is almost exactly the league average.
Let’s look at one more metric: annual revenue figures, per Forbes, which are much more accurate than the magazine’s team value numbers. (As we know thanks to Marlins financial documents leaked to Deadspin in 2010 that almost exactly matched the Forbes numbers.) Between 2008 and 2017, per Forbes, the Marlins’ annual revenue went from $128 million to $206 million, an increase of 61%. Over the same time, the average team revenue went from $183 million to $292 million, an increase of 60%; hell, even the Marlins’ famously stadium-deprived cross-state rivals the Tampa Bay Rays, meanwhile, saw their annual revenue go from $138 million to $205 million, a 49% jump.
The story here, then, is not of a city that threw $900 million at its local baseball team owner and saw him walk away with almost all of it in cash. It’s of a team owner who, despite owning a team that was highly profitable — as proven by those same leaked Deadspin documents — demanded a new stadium from taxpayers, got it, saw his team continue to draw poorly since it turned out the thing that fans wanted wasn’t to see the same below-average players lose games under a giant roof, then walked away with a windfall profit regardless thanks to a combination of the cable bubble and a growing number of billionaires seeking to own a limited number of sports teams.
In short, Marlins Park looks like it wasn’t just a waste of money for Miami taxpayers, but it didn’t even really help Loria, who would have been just as obscenely wealthy even if he’d let the team keep playing at its old stadium. I’m not honestly sure whether being a pointless new toy is more or less appalling than being a scam to get windfall profits, but it’s certainly different.