Contraction’s just another word for nothing left to lose in stadium campaigns

I neglected to post a link yesterday to my latest Baseball Prospectus column on MLB’s renewed specter of contraction. Skipping right to the stadium content:

As in 2001, much of this is likely being driven by stadium games. Back then, it was the Expos and the Twins that were in the midst of multi-year, till-then-fruitless campaigns to get public money for new stadiums in their home cities; the only reason the Twins were on the contraction list in the first place, despite being in the nation’s 14th-largest media market and having a reasonable record of on-field success (they’d go on to win a division title in 2002), was that Pohlad was looking to either scare Minnesota taxpayers into coughing up stadium cash, or get a quick payoff to make his years-long stadium fight into somebody else’s headache.

Likewise, on many levels contracting the A’s and Rays makes no sense at all. The two Bay Areas are 6th and 14th nationwide in TV market size (Tampa-St. Pete snuck past Minneapolis-St. Paul in 2005); even if you split the S.F.-Oakland-San Jose 7.4-million-person megalopolis in two and grant the A’s the smaller slice, that’s still a bigger market than most teams have to play with. Both teams have been successful on the field; the Rays weren’t that far below league-average in attendance last year, and even the A’s routinely drew 2 million fans a year before Wolff decided to artificially reduce capacity by tarping off the Coliseum’s entire upper deck. If Kang and Kodos were to land on earth with a mission of wiping a major-league baseball team off the map, they could make a far better case for, say, the Pirates, who play in the 24th-largest TV market (and shrinking), have only drawn 2 million fans once in the last 19 years (2001, when PNC Park opened), haven’t smelled October baseball in just as long, and are likewise getting $60 million a year in combined revenue-sharing and central fund money.

The difference, of course, is that the Pirates already have a new stadium, while the A’s and Rays are still in the hunt for them.

Much, much more if you click the link, including a 61-and-counting comment thread arguing about the best way to solve baseball’s revenue sharing problems, or whether they’re even problems that need to be solved in the first place.

Sportswriters generate “contraction” threat from thin air

How a random thought becomes a meme, lesson #327:

  • A sportswriter, in this case Ken Rosenthal of FoxSports, needs something to write about on a slow news day, as they all are during spring training. He writes: “Don’t be surprised if the ‘C’ word — contraction — returns to the baseball lexicon soon. I’m already hearing rumblings that certain big-market teams want to drop the A’s and Rays, even though the idea stands little chance of actually becoming reality.” Plus several hundred more words, with the only actual “rumblings” being from Hank Steinbrenner and Larry Lucchino, each of whom, Rosenthal notes, didn’t actually mention contraction.
  • FoxSports doubles down on Rosenthal’s speculation by headlining the story “A’s, Rays must relocate or face contraction.” (Later changed to “Contraction’s not the answer for MLB,” though the original is still visible in the title bar.)
  • St. Petersburg Times sports columnist John Romano writes that “Contraction, once again, is in the news,” where “in the news” means “in Ken Rosenthal’s column.” After another several hundred words, Romano concludes that while contraction isn’t likely soon, “that threat will continue to grow day by day, dollar by dollar and empty seat by empty seat. Whether you want to acknowledge it or not, Tampa Bay is now on the clock.” The Times’ headline: “Threat to contract Tampa Bay Rays may be gaining credibility.”
  • Ray Ratto writes a column decrying all this talk of contraction, which he says is a terrible idea.

I covered all the reasons MLB contraction is extremely unlikely ever to happen ten years ago, and most of those arguments still hold true today. Romano does point out that with increased revenue sharing, there’s more money to be recouped by buying out struggling franchises; however, team owners are also going to want more to be bought out now than in 2001 (in part because revenue sharing makes even low-revenue teams potentially profitable), and there’s a simpler solution, which is just to reduce revenue-sharing payments — which is, no doubt, what Steinbrenner is really after. And in any case, any attempt at contraction would still prompt a labor war plus a wave of antitrust suits — with Florida having some of the toughest case law around antitrust issues, which is in part why MLB gave the state the Rays to begin with after blocking the San Francisco Giants from moving to Tampa Bay.

For now, then, I think it’s safe to declare this a non-story. But expect to see lots more of it in coming weeks, especially if the Rays ownership keeps trying to heat up his soft sell stadium campaign, and MLB gets an early start on saber-rattling for the next collective bargaining agreement.

As Miami squabbles, the C-word rears its head

Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Alvarez declared today that the Florida Marlins stadium plan has been “hijacked” by dissident city commissioners, with their “unreasonable demands that have nothing to do with baseball,” as well as “political grandstanding, the dissemination of half-truths and intellectually dishonest assumptions.” He also instructed county manager George Burgess not to “expend or exhaust further resources or time into the Florida Marlins Baseball Stadium agreements” until the city votes on a plan — which seems pretty pointless given that they’re voting on Friday, unless he knows something we don’t know about a delay to deal with Commissioner Spence-Jones’ bombshell.

In related news, New York Daily News baseball columnist Bill Madden has raised the specter of contraction, a subject that’s been a major topic of discussion on the comment threads here:

Baseball has run out of places to move struggling franchises and, especially in this economy, who in their right mind would buy either the A’s or Marlins with their bleak stadium situations? And just as Wolff, his partner John Fisher and the Marlins’ Loria are going to be looking for a way out from under their mounting losses, baseball can’t afford to keep dumping revenue-sharing money into hopeless franchises. Like just about every other industry in this country right now, baseball is going to have to take stock of its situation and downsize. There are too many teams in baseball anyway and it makes no sense to continue operating them in places that can’t or won’t support them.

ESPN’s Rob Neyer is having none of it:

Look, the A’s and the Marlins both have serious ballpark/revenue woes. No question about it, and Madden does a good job enumerating those woes. But it’s a massive leap from “needing” a new ballpark to the c-word. For one thing, both the A’s and the Marlins have, in recent years, been competitive. We’re not talking about the St. Louis Browns here. We’re talking about one franchise that won 93 games three seasons ago and another that won 84 games just last year. I mean, seriously: these are the two teams that might disappear?

What’s more, even if both franchises were utter wrecks they still wouldn’t be serious candidates for contraction. No franchise would be. It was, what, eight years ago when this spectre was first raised, regarding the Twins and the Expos? I said then that it would never happen; that Congress (among others) wouldn’t allow it, and that the owners were simply floating the notion as leverage in their negotiations with the union.

I said much the same thing during the last round of contraction talk, for that matter. At the time, sports economist Rod Fort summed it up to me this way: “I think what’ll happen is [players union chief Don] Fehr will look them in the eye and say, ‘Fine. You can’t.’” Eight years later, that still seems like a pretty likely scenario, as do the other possibilities (lawsuits, antitrust charges) I outlined back then.