When the current CBA was ratified in 2006, it was largely seen as little more than extension to the 2002 CBA. That is, except for one pretty important detail. Prior to 2006, all MLB teams had to conform to what was called the 60/40 debt rule (assets/liabilities). Enforcement of the rule was at best lax, allowing teams to make some really bizarre long term contracts without batting an eye. With the new CBA, the debt rule had radically changed. Instead of pinning available debt to franchise value under the 60/40 rule, debt was to be capped based on earnings. Here’s the initial language of the rule:
DEBT SERVICE RULE
Section 1. The Rule. No Club may maintain more Total Club Debt than can reasonably be supported by its EBITDA. A Club’s Total Club Debt cannot reasonably be supported by its EBITDA if Total Club Debt exceeds the product of the average of that Club’s EBITDA over the most recent two years multiplied by the Cash Flow Multiplier applicable to that Club; provided, however, that a Club may elect, on or before April 1, 2007, to utilize, in both 2007 and 2008, the average of its EBITDA over the most recent three years.
To illustrate this, let’s look at Forbes’ 2010 financial profile of the A’s. In it, operating income (EBITDA) came out to $22.1 million. For 2009, it was $26 million. Averaged, it’s $24 million. To get the Total Club Debt ceiling, multiply that last figure by 10, and you get $240 million in debt ceiling. Also in the profile, the A’s have a 30% debt/value ratio, putting the team’s applicable current debt at $88.5 million. Every team gets a debt exemption of $36.5 million. Factored in, that puts the A’s debt at $52 million. That leaves $188 million under the team’s cap.
According to the listed definitions of what constitutes debt, just about anything that is borrowed or to be paid later falls in. This includes loans from MLB or third parties such as banks, non-player deferred compensation, stadium debt (only when the stadium opens), loans from related parties (ex.: partly or wholly owned regional sports networks), and any other debt except for a player compensation and an initial $36.5 million deduction (like the standard income tax deduction).
The 10x multiplier changes to 15x when a new stadium opens. This is important, because, as Jeffrey pointed out two weeks ago, MLB is ready to provide a loan of up to $150 million for construction. Assuming that EBITDA stays fairly constant, the A’s debt ceiling will move to $360 million. In the meantime, the A’s would likely pay down existing debt (either from annual profits or by bringing in additional partners) to get itself in the right position to get the stadium financing.
The kicker here is that while player compensation is not supposed to be part of the calculus, it is no doubt a considering factor. Selig has a mandate for mid/small market teams to get their houses in order prior to opening a new ballpark. Any number of punitive measures can be taken against a club if they go over their debt cap, including restrictions against future borrowing and even limits to new player contracts. If anything, this is the true spirit of the debt rule: to keep teams living within their means. (Big market teams such as the Dodgers and the Rangers under Tom Hicks benefited from selective enforcement.)
Now let’s assume that certain housekeeping moves are made. Trevor Cahill is locked up through his arb years in a similar deal to what Brett Anderson received, plus Daric Barton is also secured. In addition, Mark Ellis is brought back, as well as Kevin Kouzmanoff. Jack Cust is gone, while Michael Taylor starts the season in RF. Gio Gonzalez, Dallas Braden, and Andrew Bailey are also back through short-term/non-arb deals. No one of note is traded, but a free agent slugger is brought in for a 2-year, $20 million deal with a third year team option. Here’s what that would look like:
If you’re Selig and you’re looking at the two tables, you’re thinking “That’s it. Give me your credit card.” It doesn’t matter that this kind of debt technically doesn’t count toward’s the CBA definition, it’s still debt. Salaries weren’t supposed to count under the old 60/40 rule either, but they did. It’s a terribly unfair way to run a competitive league, but them’s the breaks. By 2013, the payroll will head into the $80 million territory because of the normally occurring raises. As a team that is not yet fully capable of carrying its own weight, the A’s have their own de facto salary cap. Most of it is due to circumstance. Type A free agents aren’t going to sign 2-3 year deals here unless they have a problem that makes other teams balk at giving them 5-6 year deals (injury history, age, consistency). Yet that 2-3 year window is exactly what the team should exercise while costs are contained. Lew Wolff mentioned recently that the one-year rental idea doesn’t work that well, which is true at least historically. So what’s the best way to fill in the holes in the lineup? More Coco Crisps? Trade one or more of the pitchers for a bat?
Most importantly, how does this affect how you view the A’s future, or the league in general?
Note: If you’re wondering how the Yankees operate within the rules even though they’ve accrued billions of dollars of debt, the answer is simple. The team doesn’t “own” most of the debt. Its related parties do.