Ballpark on layaway
The new CBA has a major change to its debt rule that will affect the A’s as they try to put a ballpark deal together.
The Debt Service Rule will be maintained, but the default EBITDA multiplier has been lowered from ten to eight, and from fifteen to twelve for Clubs incurring stadium-related debt in the first ten years of a new or renovated stadium.
Questions about the commissioner’s actual enforcement of the rule aside, suddenly the A’s have a little less of a ceiling to play with when it comes to building a stadium. For Wolff/Fisher, debt will be limited to 12x the team’s gross income, which according to Forbes has been $22-23 million for the past two seasons, and probably won’t change significantly this year. Should that hold steady, the maximum debt the owners could incur is $270 million. The team already has $90 million on the books, which reduces to available figure to $180 million. Let’s say the team pays down $20 million in the next year. That would put the ceiling at $200 million…
…Unless something were to change dramatically for the A’s. As Billy Beane gets rid of arbitration-year guys like they’re going out of style, the effect is that it can drive up the team’s EBITDA/gross profit. Right now the A’s payroll projects at $24 million unless they sign a series of one-year veteran deals. Beane told Murray Chass that he’s willing to go with a payroll in the $50+ million range, which would immediately turn into roughly $10 million of additional gross profit. If the A’s maintain that level over the next two seasons, the A’s profit figure will hit $30 million or more, which would put make their debt ceiling as much as $360 million, assuming the team pays down some of its existing debt (which it can do thanks to the saved payroll).
That extra $100-150 million is a huge difference, perhaps large enough to be difference between financing the ballpark and not financing it. We should remember a few basic things about how the A’s would move forward with a ballpark, regardless of location:
- The projected cost was $450 million for the smaller, 32,000-seat stadium. Now that MLB has pushed for a larger park (35-36,000), the cost will go up to around $500 million.
- Cisco’s naming rights deal in Fremont was worth $4 million per year for 30 years, or $60 million in net present value against the construction cost. I think the rights are worth more in San Jose than in Fremont, which could translate into $5 million a year or $75 million NPV if the A’s wanted to reopen the discussion.
- Wolff/Fisher have to set aside additional money for the remaining land acquisitions and infrastructure work. Depending on what’s negotiated, that could be $50-75 million.
The total cost of the stadium is well above the team’s debt ceiling, however I think a little creative accounting is at play. Financing for any stadium usually falls into two debt buckets: one that is easily secured (naming rights, sponsorships, pouring and concessionaire rights, etc.) and one that is not (tickets, actual concession sales). The easily secured stuff can have a 5% or 6% interest rate, plus in some cases (East Coast) the team is able to sucker a city or county into raising tax exempt bonds, or some other instrument which can save millions. The other stuff often hits at 7-8%, or in the 49ers case, as much as 8.5%. That’s junk bond grade debt. It’s absolutely critical that the A’s structure their debt that as little as possible is at the higher rate, which is an automatic limiting factor (this is a good thing). For that reason, I can’t see the applicable stadium debt being any higher than $250 million. Everything else will either be paid down early or locked into the “first bucket” revenue streams. MLB doesn’t appear to be as worried about the first bucket as it is the second, which also goes for the banks that will eventually provide construction loans.
$250 million at 7% over 25 years translates into $20 million in annual debt service. It’s a lot, but it’s manageable. One thing to consider is that A’s tickets, with the exception the Diamond Level seats, are generally 25-50% lower than comparable tickets at other ballparks. That leaves a ton of headroom in ticket prices that the A’s can use when establishing their 2015 Cisco Field pricing structure. Yesterday I did a quick survey of 2012 season ticket prices for several non-New York ballparks.
Now let’s take a look what happens if the A’s, entering the 2015 season, priced tickets more in line with (but slightly less than) the going market trend.
What does it mean for annual revenue? If the A’s sell 2.5 million tickets, they’ll rake in over $78 million just in tickets. If they sell out the season, that jumps up to $91 million. That doesn’t include proceeds from concessions or parking, which are worth at least $30 million more in annual revenue, or $12-15 million in profit assuming a 40% margin.
Now you’re getting to a magical number of $1 million in ticket revenue per game. The challenge here is to maintain at least 2.5 million in annual attendance. If attendance drops to 2.2 million per game, that’s $8-9 million in revenue not realized, and that’s when the mortgage starts to hurt. Historically, the A’s have gotten 2.5 million fans or more only three teams in their tenure in Oakland, and never prior to that. The team will be highly dependent on new fans, casual fans, and existing fans who are so turned off by the Coliseum that they don’t bother going. Overcoming that stigma will be a challenge to say the least. If the Giants, Cardinals, and Phillies are successful examples of how to deal with an eight-figure annual debt service, it’s definitely feasible.