After the defeats of both the Yankees and Phillies in the divisional round, the most oft-tweeted fact was that all of the payrolls of the remaining four teams (Detroit, Texas, Milwaukee, St. Louis) were less than $107 million. All four teams can be considered midrange in terms of revenue and payroll, which makes it incredibly refreshing that those are the four left standing, not the mega-money teams of the biggest markets. We can only hope that this continues, if only to start a trend of “right-sizing” payrolls all over baseball in order to optimize efficiency. (Yeah right.)
That culling of the playoff herd was preceded by Lew Wolff’s observation (during the Tuesday interview with Carl Guardino) that should the A’s make the move to the South Bay, the team’s annual revenue could jump to $230-240 million. At first that seemed improbable and to me, perhaps a bit of a lark. Over the weekend I started to dig into the numbers to try to understand if it was possible. Not only is it possible, by the time the A’s finish their first year at Cisco Field, $230 million may be mandatory.
To get a better sense of this, it’s best to look at how MLB’s revenue has grown over the last decade, especially since the first revenue sharing CBA year in 2003. Back then, baseball’s total revenue was a shade under $3.9 billion. Last year was a cool $7 billion. During the last decade, the average annual revenue growth has been 6-7% year over year. That growth slowed with the recession, but it’s realistic to see growth rebounding to at least 4%, which would at least outpace inflation. To that end, I’ve run some projections over the next few years with a 5% growth rate (conservative, I expect Commissioner Selig and the owners to be satisfied with no less than 6% if the corporate customer base is considered healthy enough).
It gets even more interesting when the numbers are broken down per team.
By 2015, the average revenue should be $250-260 million, an amount that would support a payroll of $125 million, almost twice what the A’s payroll was this past season. In effect, projecting to $230 million is merely trying to keep up with the Joneses. It’s what will be required for the A’s to truly minimize their revenue sharing “welfare” status. If the A’s can’t hit the median or mean revenue mark on a somewhat regular basis, it’s probably worth asking if it makes sense for the Bay Area to host two teams.
To get to $230 million in 2015, the A’s ownership group will have to sell the hell out of Cisco Field, including a 50% jump from 2014 to 2015 across the board in terms of local revenue sources. Given the meager results they’re getting while at the Coliseum, this is not an impossible task. (The Twins experienced a similar jump when Target Field opened.) Season sellouts for the first year or two would go a long way towards hitting the target. In 2015, the difference between 24,000 per game and 32,000 per game is over $26 million, let alone whatever additional money they get if the ballpark is larger than 32,000 seats.
When Lew Wolff and Billy Beane talk about planning for the next three years, the reasons for doing so start to crystallize when the numbers are laid out like this. Already, the Earthquakes’ $60 million stadium appears to be moving forward without significant upfront sponsorship commitments, indicating that Wolff is willing to make the cash calls necessary to get the ball rolling there. I’ve heard rumblings of private equity firms perhaps being involved, though it’s hard to see any heavy investment there when the return may not be as great as what such firms may be looking for. After all, it was only two months ago when Wolff said:
(Baseball’s) not an internal rate of return 20% or something like that. You shouldn’t be in this business if you want that.
Getting commitments for Cisco Field should not as difficult as for the Earthquakes stadium; in fact it should be a highly competitive situation. Still, ownership has to be looking at trying to reduce debt service as much as humanly possible, so they must have an internal target of upfront money they’ll need to push forward. Maybe it’s $200 million, maybe more (roughly 40% of the total cost). This is incredibly important because the private stadium loan market could be a complete wildcard over the next couple of years. Keeping debt service manageable doesn’t just help the bottom line, it will surely raise the franchise’s valuation due to its favorable debt position. Keep in mind that Cisco’s $120 million naming rights deal has a present value of $60 million, so the A’s will need much more than that to truly get going.
If Wolff gets a “no” decision from MLB, that leaves Beane with the regular revenue streams to fund the next several seasons’ payroll. It’s easy to see the A’s consistently hovering in that 74-86 win range depending on the team’s health. The team may be good enough to go for the division crown with some luck, and without luck the team would not be bad enough to score a top five first round draft pick. On the other hand, if San Jose is a go the controversial full rebuild could occur, with a key focus being another top ten pick to go along with Michael Choice (2010 #10). Jeffrey’s post from Friday explains the need for any money-challenged team to have a stable of developed top ten picks to serve as franchise cornerstones. This also highlights the importance of reining in debt, as it may be expected that the team run lean should a more aggressively enforced debt rule come into play.
In light of the lessons of Moneyball, it’s crazy to think that the A’s payroll in future seasons could frequently eclipse $100 million. Thanks to a little inflation and a lot of revenue sharing, the A’s are coming along for the ride. That will only take them so far, however. If the A’s are unable to significantly grow their own locally-sourced revenue on a regular basis, they be left behind competitively. With the future threat of multiple teams having $200+ million payrolls, the A’s have no choice. As Brad Pitt’s Beane flippantly says to a defiant Grady Fuson in the film, “Adapt or die.”