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Top 25 Baseball Stories of the Decade — No. 3: Baseball teams become cash cows

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We’re a few short days away from the dawn of the 2020s. So, instead of counting down the Top 25 stories of the year, we’re taking a look at the top 25 baseball stories of the past decade.

Some of them took place on the field, some of them off the field and some of them were more akin to tabloid drama. No matter where the story broke, however, these were the stories baseball fans were talking about most over the past ten years.

Next up: number 3: Baseball Teams Become Cash Cows 

 

It’s been a fantastic decade in which to own a baseball team.

It was recently reported that Major League Baseball set a new revenue record in 2019, raking in $10.7 Billion. That’s up from $10.3 billion the year before and up from a mere $6.6 billion a decade ago. Indeed, 2019 marked the 17th year in a row that MLB has broken its own revenue record.

Meanwhile, every single team in baseball is estimated to be worth at least a billion dollars, with the Yankees topping the list at something north of $4 billion. In 2009 only the Yankees were estimated to be worth a billion dollars, with teams near the bottom of those rankings valued at less than $300 million. By Forbes’ estimates, teams have appreciated by about 377%.

Given that those 17 years of revenue escalation include The Great Recession, and given that those ever-increasing franchise values include teams run by brilliant business minds and tacticians like, um, Frank McCourt and Jeff Loria, it’s probably safe to say that, from a business perspective, baseball has become basically idiot-proof and that owning a baseball team is a license to print money.

But the idiots are, increasingly, getting out of the business in favor of a very different breed of team owner which may, in turn, change the very nature of baseball going forward.

To be clear, this is not a lament about “Baseball Men” — however one wants to define that slippery term — no longer owning baseball teams. That ship left the harbor a long time ago. Indeed, a guy who made his bones building actual ships — a fellow by the name of Steinbrenner — bought the Yankees 46 years ago. The last baseball owner who actually made his true living by owning a baseball team was probably the Twins’ Calvin Griffith, who got out of the business in 1984. As such, the notion of rich men from other walks of life — be it used cars, shipbuilding, cable TV, real estate, or what have you — buying baseball teams as their ego-stoking playthings is a many decades-old phenomenon and not one I’m worried about at the moment.

But there was a distinct change in the 2010s. The rich men who have bought into the ownership club in this past decade have, increasingly, come from financial backgrounds or investment groups. And, rather than playthings, they’ve purchased their teams, it would seem, as primarily financial plays as opposed to ego trips. Indeed, no fewer than ten current ownership groups — and I may be missing one or two —  either made their fortunes in the financial services industry or inherited money from someone who did.

The newest on the list: hedge fund billionaire Steven Cohen, a longtime minority owner, who just entered into an agreement to buy out the current Mets owners over the next couple of years. Also new this past decade are Bruce Sherman of the Miami Marlins, Mark Walter of the Dodgers, and Ray Davis of the Rangers. This past year the Giants, who have long been owned by a multi-headed investment group, named Gregory Johnson their control person. He’s the son of the team’s largest single equity holder, Charles Johnson, who made his billions in finance, and Gregory has followed in those footsteps. They join longer-standing owners with financial services backgrounds like John Henry of the Red Sox, Mark Attanasio of the Brewers, Bill DeWitt of the Cardinals, and Stuart Sternberg of the Rays.

These owners are a savvy lot. They’ve been watching those revenues and team valuations rise. They’re aware that baseball, unlike any other business, is exempt from antitrust laws. They’re well aware that, while they might have to pay to build a factory or a distribution center if they invest in a different kind of business, they can usually be assured that taxpayers and local governments will subsidize their capital and facility investments in baseball. It’s really appealing. If you have some money to park it’s hard to find a better parking place than in a major league baseball team.

And there may be many more looking for parking in the near future.

A recent change to Major League Baseball’s ownership rules will allow investment funds — private equity — to acquire minority stakes in ball clubs. The rule change is, primarily, a vehicle to allow current owners to get substantial cash infusions and to allow minority owners looking to cash out their holdings to capitalize on soaring MLB team valuations. For the investment funds it’s just a financial move. A way to get in on the cash cows that are major league franchises.

When this rule was changed, some people worried that it might create problems down the road in which private equity could begin to exert the sort of power over baseball that it has in other industries, making demands for returns on their investment which require ownership to drift away from its core business and do things which serve the investors first and foremost. That baseball teams will, increasingly, not be thinking primarily of baseball when they go about their business. Things like jacking up ticket prices and slashing payroll even more than they’ve already done. Things like building fees into even more transactions and experiences than they already have. Making baseball games and the experience of being a baseball fan even more about extracting money from fans and giving it to billionaires than it already is.

Others say that’s needless worrying:

“Leagues want consistency and owners who are in it for the love of sports, offering benefits to the community and supporting goals of the league,” Phil de Picciotto, president of sports marketing agency Octagon, recently told Institutional Investor. “None of these are private equity qualities.”

Based on what else has happened over the past decade, however, that seems like a pretty naive take to me.

Those record revenues we talked about above have come as attendance has declined. They have come as player salaries are falling. They have come as a startling number of teams seem to have very little interest in improving themselves or winning baseball games in the near or even the mid term. They have come on the back of sources of income that have little or no connection to clubs putting entertaining and competitive baseball teams on the field and, in some cases, have no connection to the playing of actual baseball games at all. They have come amidst — indeed, as a result — of an increasing disconnect between that which makes money and that which provides competitive excitement and fan interest. That “love of sports” and those “benefits to the community and supporting goals of the league” that guy mentioned above — the things we came to expect when ego-driven guys like George Steinbrenner and Ted Turner owned teams and happily threw money after championships — are, in fact, less important to baseball, financially, than they have ever been.

So, if you own a team and you are getting billions from your long-term TV deals, your real estate investments, and your corporate sponsorships over the next couple of decades — and billions more in random windfalls from gambling, internet side businesses, and periodic cash infusions from private equity — why put any money into your team? Why pay for the best ballplayers? Why try to compete? To do so is to take money out of your own pocket for very little financial reward, relatively speaking. And, if you have an aggressive private equity firm or hedge fund with a stake in your business, you may be risking a fight with a well-heeled and well-lawyered minority investor who couldn’t care less about anything that is not a return on their investment. In short: given the changing face of baseball ownership, a trend which has already taken hold in the 2010s stands a pretty decent chance of intensifying in the coming years.

To be sure, those old owners, both the old school Baseball Men and the Steinbrenner/Turner types who followed them, were not a great lot. Dozens of books have been written about their greed, their cheapness, their racism, their cruelty and, in some cases, their criminality. I don’t miss them. I’d guess that most of today’s current lot of owners are better people, on the whole, than those Lords of the Realm were.

But those Lords of the Realm did, for the most part, consider themselves to be in the baseball business and, for the most part, desired to win baseball games. There were always exceptions — cheap owners who were happy to finish in the second division if they were profitable — but there were financial risks to losing that don’t exist today, providing for at least some amount of correction. And, of course, there were a pretty decent number of owners who simply wanted to win because what in the hell is the point of owning a team if you don’t win once in a while?

Baseball teams have become cash cows on a level no one could’ve imagined even a decade ago. The men who own teams now are less interested in baseball than they are in using baseball as but one part of a well-diversified portfolio. As result, that whole deal seems to be breaking down in a number of ways.

As such, it’s not hard to look into the future and imagine situations in which it begins to imperil the cow itself.

 

PREVIOUS ENTRIES 

No. 4: Bud Selig Retires, Rob Manfred takes over
No. 5: The Tanking Epidemic
No. 6: The Deaths of Young Players
No. 7: Miguel Cabrera Wins the Triple Crown
No. 8: The Biogenesis Scandal
No. 9: Bullpen Mania Takes Over the Game
No. 10: The Rise of the Young Player
No. 11: Baseball Goes From Deadball To Juiced Ball
No. 12: Baseball Begins Rewriting the Rulebook
No. 13: Baseball Adds a Second Wild Card
No. 14: Albert Pujols Signs With the Angels
No. 15: Baseball Continues a Remarkable Run of Labor Peace
No. 16: Baseball implements a domestic violence policy
No. 17: Cardinals Employee Hacks Astros’ Database
No. 18: Frank and Jamie McCourt Bankrupt the Dodgers
No. 19: Baseball Embraces Gambling
No. 20: The Hall of Fame Logjam
No. 21: The Bat-flippers Win the Battle Over the Unwritten Rules
No. 22: Astros switch leagues
No. 23: The Strasburg Shutdown
No. 24: Chicken and Beer
No. 25: All-Star Game no longer counts
Honorable mention: Astros Sign Stealing Scandal

 

Rob Manfred offers little insight, shows contempt for reporters in press conference

Rob Manfred
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Commissioner Rob Manfred spoke at a press conference, addressing the Astros cheating scandal and other topics on Sunday evening. It did not go well.

To start, the press conference was not broadcast officially on MLB’s own TV channel (it aired the 1988 movie Bull Durham instead), nor could any mention to it or link to the live stream be found anywhere on MLB.com. When the actual questions began, Manfred’s answers were circuitous or simply illogical given other comments he has made in the past. On more than one occasion, he showed contempt for reporters for doing their jobs — and, some might argue, doing his job — holding players and front office personnel accountable.

Last month, Jared Diamond of the Wall Street Journal broke a story about the Astros’ “dark arts” and “Codebreaker” operation, based on a letter Manfred sent to then-GM Jeff Luhnow. Diamond was among the reporters present for Manfred’s press conference on Sunday. Per The Athletic’s Lindsey Adler, Manfred addressed Diamond, saying, “You know, congratulations. You got a private letter that, you know, I sent to a club official. Nice reporting on your part.” MLB’s response to the depth of the Astros’ cheating ways was lacking and, without Diamond’s reporting, we would have known how deeply lacking that response was. It is understandable that Manfred would be salty about it, since it exposed him as doing his job poorly, but it was an immature, unrestrained response from someone in charge of the entire league.

Onto the actual topic at hand, Manfred said he felt like the punishment doled out to the Astros was enough. Per Chris Cotillo, Manfred said Astros players “have been hurt by this” and will forever be questioned about their achievements in 2017 and ’18. Some players disagree. Former pitcher Phil Hughes even suggested the players have a work stoppage over this issue.

Manfred defended his decision not to vacate the Astros’ championship, saying, “The idea of an asterisk or asking for a piece of metal back seems like a futile act.” The commissioner devaluing the meaning of a championship seems… not great? Counterintuitive, even? The “piece of metal” is literally called the Commissioner’s Trophy. Manfred went on to brag about the league having “the intestinal fortitude to share the results of that investigation, even when those results were not very pretty.” Be careful, don’t hurt yourself patting yourself on the back for doing the bare minimum.

Manfred said there was no evidence found that the Astros used buzzers and added that, since the players were given immunity, he doesn’t think they would continue to hide that when asked about it. He said, “I think in my own mind. It was hard for me to figure out why they would tell us, given that they were immune, why they would be truthful and admit they did the wrong thing and 17, admit they did the wrong thing and 18, and then lie about what was going on in 19.”

The commissioner expects the league to implement “really serious restrictions” on access to in-game video feeds for the 2020 season.

There has been some recent back-and-forth between the Dodgers’ Cody Bellinger and the Astros’ Carlos Correa. Manfred isn’t a fan of the sniping through the media. He said, “I’m sort of a civil discourse person. It must be because I’m old. But, yeah, I think that the back and forth that’s gone on is not healthy.” The reason Bellinger and others are speaking publicly about the issue, attempting to hold the Astros accountable, is because the league did not do a sufficient job doing that itself. Bellinger wouldn’t feel the need to speak up in defense of himself, his teammates, and other players affected by the cheating scheme if he felt like the league had his and his peers’ backs.

Because the players involved in the Astros’ cheating scheme weren’t punished, some — like Larry Bowa — have suggested intentionally throwing baseballs at Astros players to exact justice. Manfred met with managers who were in attendance today to inform them that retaliatory beanballs “will not be tolerated.” He added, “It’s dangerous and it is not helpful to the current situation.” Manfred has done nothing about beanball wars in the past, but it will now give the Astros somewhat of an advantage since pitchers will now be judged closely on any pitch that runs too far inside on Astro hitters.

Manfred also spoke about the ongoing feud with Minor League Baseball and basically reiterated what he and the rest of the league have disingenuously been saying since it was revealed MLB proposed cutting 42 minor league teams. Manfred’s talking point is that MLB is concerned about substandard facilities being used by minor league players, but not all of the 42 teams on the proposed chopping block have anything close to what could reasonably be considered substandard.

Lastly, Manfred was asked about the Orioles and tanking, and more or less danced around the issue by expressing confidence in the club’s ownership. The Orioles have won 47 and 54 games in the past two seasons. Payroll dropped by more than $50 million. The Orioles saw over 250,000 fewer fans in attendance in 2019 than in ’18. The O’s also saw a decline of over 460,000 fans in attendance from 2017 to ’18. But, yeah, it’s going well.

All in all, this press conference could not have gone worse for Manfred. The press found it condescending and the comments he made rang hollow to the players. Manfred seemed on edge and unprepared addressing arguably the biggest controversy baseball has faced since the steroid era. This is a dark time for the sport.