Just as the stock and housing markets have experienced bubbles, MLB appears to be in a bubble of its own when it comes to buying and selling franchises. Last week, Drayton McLane and Jim Crane came to a surprisingly high price of $680 million for the Astros. That follows up the auction-boosted $593 million paid by Nolan Ryan’s group for the Texas Rangers. In both cases the final sale prices were a combined $348 million more than Forbes’ valuations at the times of those sales. Prior to the two Texas teams, the Padres and Cubs pulled $100+ million premiums over Forbes.
It’s not only MLB. Last year the Warriors were sold for a NBA record sale price of $450 million. Again, this was around $100 million more than expected for the team. Compare these recent sales to those of a few years ago in the table above. In those cases the disparities weren’t nearly as vast and could be easily explained. Nowadays it’s hard to say. The Astros reportedly fetched a higher price due to projected higher revenues from a new regional sports network. Yet the Rangers’ premium price didn’t even include all of the parking lots surrounding the stadium, and it’s possible that a future sale of the Dodgers will have similar limitations. I have a few hunches as to why this bubble is occurring:
- Money has been sitting on the sidelines of the broader market for so long that interested buyers are willing to pay premiums for sports properties.
- Local TV revenue is starting go through the roof for more than the big market teams, which is encouraging investors to buy into teams with long, locked-in TV contracts.
- MLB’s CBA in particular looks attractive to investors because cost controls are inherent for each team and there’s little worry about labor strife.
- Someone (who?) may be priming the pump on franchises.
That last bit is complete speculation with no basis in fact, but how else can you explain it?
The next franchise likely to be sold will be the Braves (again), who were sold in 2007 as part of tax-free, debt-free equity swap between Ted Turner and John Malone’s Liberty Media. Those tax breaks expire next year, which means the clock is ticking for the Braves. I’m curious to see what price they fetch – and whether having zero debt load makes any difference.
As long as franchises continue to be sold for premium prices, the market creates yet another obstacle for Oakland. Let’s say the Wolff gives up on the Bay Area and announces he wants to sell with Fisher. Bidding could easily grow to over $400 million with no guarantee of a hometown discount. The best hope for the pro-Oakland crowd would be if Fisher could be convinced to stay on as silent majority partner and another managing partner were brought in, much the same way Bill Neukom was brought into the Giants. But if you’re Fisher, how do you sign on without guarantees you’re getting real returns? By real returns, I mean a ballpark that more than pays for itself. If I knew the answer, perhaps I wouldn’t be so skeptical about Oakland’s chances.