The Dodgers are gonna get big media money soon, but let’s not go crazy

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The answer to any question about a baseball team’s increased spending these days is “well, they have a new local TV deal in the offing, and that will bring big money.”  It’s why the Angels could easily afford C.J. Wilson and Albert Pujols in one offseason. It’s why the Phillies, despite a big payroll already, could afford to go big on Cole Hamels.  Local TV money is all the rage these days, so anyone getting a new infusion of it will be flying high.

But one definitely gets the sense that people are overstating this a bit. For one thing, it strikes me that there’s the possibility of a bubble situation here, with the “TV money is HUGE” mantra sounding an awful lot like the “Real estate only goes up!” mantra of a few years ago.  Maybe that’s just my gut talking, but it’s very possible that changes in the industry — direct-to-consumer broadcasting, a la carte cable channel pricing, online streaming — could alter the financial calculus one day soon.

Maybe that means revenues grow even bigger. Maybe it means they crater. Maybe it means they flatten out. Maybe it just shifts. But it has always been the case that the business model for broadcasting never stays static for five years, let alone the 20 years or more that some of these crazy TV deals are supposed to last.

Which brings us to the Dodgers, about whom Patrick Rishe of Forbes writes this today, putting the $271 million in new salary obligations in perspective:

Unquestionably, new ownership in L.A. is a big part of the increased willingness to spend on payroll over the last few months. But when Dodgers chairman Mark Walter said earlier this week that the team could still take on significant money, his inspiration not only stemmed from a combination of his deep pockets, Magic Johnson’s infectious passion for success, and Stan Kasten’s savvy baseball acumen.

Mr. Walter’s penchant for spending is also being fueled by the comfort of knowing that the Dodgers will soon see an explosive increase in their local/regional TV revenues when their current deal expires in 2013 that could reach as high as $8.5 billion over the next 20 years.

$8.5 billion?  That breaks down to $425 million a year in TV revenue. Which is multiple times higher than any other team out there, including that of the Angels, who signed a $3 billion TV deal. And it’s multiples higher than what experts have projected for some other popular teams with deals in the future like the Phillies and the Tigers.

That’s profoundly optimistic, and that’s before you figure in the fact that the Dodgers owners are probably already counting on that financial windfall to finance what still appears to be a massive overpay for the franchise itself, which they bought for around $2 billion. And, of course, before you figure in the possibility that the TV landscape may look very different in 2022 than it does in 2012 and that it may be totally unrecognizable in 2032.

None of which is to say that the Dodgers will go broke having to pay for Josh Beckett and Carl Crawford. I’m sure they can swing it.  It is the case, however, that there is no investment in recorded history that has been such a sure thing that one can responsibly talk about it as if it were a never-ending source of cash.

As such, to the extent there are people around major league baseball who are staking the entire financial future of the sport on the assumption that, eventually, every team is going to land a multi-billion dollar television deal, they had better not be the only ones with voices at the table.

Must-Click Link: Do the players even care about money anymore?

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Yesterday I wrote about how the union has come to find itself in the extraordinarily weak position it’s in. The upshot: their leadership and their membership, happily wealthy by virtue of gains realized in the 1970s-1990s, has chosen to focus on small, day-to-day, quality of life issues rather than big-picture financial issues. As a result, ownership has cleaned their clock in the past few Collective Bargaining Agreements. If the union is to ever get back the considerable amount of ground it has lost over the past 15 years, it’ll require a ton of hard work and perhaps drastic measures.

A few hours later, Yahoo’s Jeff Passan dropped an absolute must-read that expands on that topic. Through weeks of interviews with league officials, agents and players, he explains why the free agent market is as bad as it is for players right now and why so many of them and so many fans seem not to understand just how bad a spot the players are in, business wise.

Passan keys on the media’s credulousness regarding teams’ stated rationales for not spending in free agency. About how, with even a little bit of scrutiny, the “[Team] wants to get below the luxury tax” argument makes no sense. About how the claim that this is a weak free agent class, however true that may be, does not explain why so few players are being signed.  About how so few teams seem interested in actually competing and how fans, somehow, seem totally OK with it.

Passan makes a compelling argument, backed by multiple sources, that, even if there is a lot of money flowing around, the fundamental financial model of the game is broken. The young players are the most valuable but are paid pennies while players with 6-10 years service time are the least valuable yet are the ones, theoretically anyway, positioned to make the most money. The owners have figured it out. The union has dropped the ball as it has worried about, well, whatever the heck it is worried about. The killer passage on all of this is damning in this regard:

During the negotiations leading to the 2016 basic agreement that governs baseball, officials at MLB left bargaining stupefied almost on a daily basis. Something had changed at the MLBPA, and the league couldn’t help but beam at its good fortune: The core principle that for decades guided the union no longer seemed a priority.

“It was like they didn’t care about money anymore,” one league official said.

Personally, I don’t believe that they don’t care about money anymore. I think the union has simply dropped the ball on educating its membership about the business structure of the game and the stakes involved with any given rule in the CBA. I think that they either so not understand the financial implications of that to which they have agreed or are indifferent to them because they do not understand their scope and long term impact.

It’s a union’s job to educate its membership about the big issues that may escape any one member’s notice — like the long term effects of a decision about the luxury tax or amateur and international salary caps — and convince them that it’s worth fighting for. Does the MLBPA do that? Does it even try? If it hasn’t tried for the past couple of cycles and it suddenly starts to now, will there be a player civil war, with some not caring to jeopardize their short term well-being for the long term gain of the players who follow them?

If you care at all about the business and financial aspects of the game, Passan’s article is essential.