Over this Thanksgiving weekend there has been some discussion on Macks Mets comment threads about whether or not the Wilpons are cheap. Many people would respond with a resounding “Hell yeah!” without looking to bring up any verifiable data to back up their assertion. Defenders will point to the payroll levels in the pre-Madoff days as an indication that they are not penny pinching Scrooges after all. The truth, as it so often happens, probably lies somewhere in between.
However, let’s take a look at the basic economics of baseball in terms of attendance. It can be said that losing makes ticket sales doubly challenging. (Ask recently fired VP of Ticket Sales Leigh Castergine how difficult a task it is selling seats on the Titanic).
One of the things that came up during the previous season was the base canard that the Mets would be open to spending more when they saw more people in the ballpark. That one was downright insulting to the fans. After all, people who are loyal to the team were still trickling into the ballpark despite a lineup featuring such luminaries as Omar Quintanilla, Aaron Laffey, Rick Ankiel, Anthony Recker and Jose Valverde.
Take a look at the attendance record of the Mets over the past several years and you’ll see a trend. The team crossed the 4 million threshold in the final year of Shea Stadium’s existence in 2008. Part of that record setting pace likely had to do with the final chance to see the old ballpark but a large part of it also had to do with the fact that the team was indeed playing meaningful baseball in September – finishing with an 83-79 winning record, but 3 games behind the division leading Phillies.
2009 marked the opening of the House of Horrors known as CitiField. The team plummeted to a 70-92 record under Omar Minaya and Jerry Manuel. Despite the high curiosity factor of a few ballpark, the fact remains that losing drives people away in droves and attendance dropped by 25%. It fell another 20% in the following year and then another 20% the following season where it pretty much leveled off at the 2.1 million level during the whole Sandy Alderson/Terry Collins regime. Of course, we all are painfully aware that the team has also played sub-.500 ball during these four years, too.
So what does this history lesson have to do with economics? Let’s get overly simplistic and modest in our revenue projects and take a look at how far they’ve fallen. They current stand 50% below the high water mark in attendance for 2008. Now it’s unlikely to get to that level again anytime soon, but let’s set the modest goal of returning to 2009’s 3.1 million fannies in the seats. What would an extra 1 million people mean to the team’s finances?
Well, you can’t go by me as I live out in the hinterlands of West Texas and don’t attend games anymore, but I’ll use the most modest estimate I can for revenue projection. Assuming a ticket, some food, souvenirs and a share of the parking amounts to $70 per person to attend the game, then the extra revenue generated by another million fans in attendance is $70 million.
Think about that for a moment -- $70 million added to the current payroll would put the Mets back to where they were before their Madoff demise. What would $70 million buy you? Well, for starters you would have Jose Reyes playing shortstop and leading off. You would have had money to have gotten in on the Cuban sweepstakes that have taken place over the past several years while the Mets sat on their hands. You would have money available to lock up players like Matt Harvey and Jacob de Grom by buying out their arbitration years.
Do you think the team would win a few more ballgames with these changes to the roster than they have by shopping for minor league deals, lightning-in-a-bottle Chris Young type contracts or having to settle for short term deals for older players as a hedge against limited payroll resources?
As we sit around and ponder what still needs to be done to the roster, the truth is that the team is still operating under the short sighted vision of “getting by” rather than investing to win. As attendance shows, winning makes people want to come to the ballpark. Even the crosstown rivals have seen attendance decline as a result of them missing the post season for each of the past few years.
In terms of current roster composition, does this analysis mean I think the Mets should trade off every prospect in the system for an oft-injured and expensive Troy Tulowitzki? No, it does not. However, it is insulting to the fans’ intelligence to say “Player X is too expensive for the Mets”. No one is. The Mets need to change their philosophy.