April 16, 2014

Cleveland and Detroit – Similar Markets – Except When It Comes To Baseball Ownership

You want a recap? I will give you one. The Indians were annihilated by the Twins 14-3 while giving up 10 runs in one inning. That’s your recap.

Last night’s debacle, the Indians 10th straight loss, has me seeing things differently. In fact, this moment of clarity came over my weekend trip to Detroit.

On Saturday night, I made the trek down to Comerica Park with my family. Upon arrival, it was a sea of Old English D caps, Tigers shirts and jerseys. The sell out crowd was nothing new in Detroit. They fill the park the majority of their games. In fact, the Tigers rank ninth out of 30 Major League franchises in attendance, with an average of over 37,400 fans. Not coincidentally, the Tigers have MLB’s fifth largest payroll at over $132 million.

Then I thought to myself, the city of Detroit is generally viewed as one of the most depressed big cities in America. Job loss is at an all time high. There are vacant buildings all over the downtown area. Businesses close. Downtown Detroit is far from vibrant. Remember the old Mike Polk Jr ” Hastily Made Cleveland Tourist Video from 2009? The tag line at the end was “We’re Not Detroit.”

That’s right, we’re not Detroit. Detroit has a deep pockets billionaire owner who uses the franchise as his toy. Mike Illitch, he of the Little Caesars Pizza empire, has unlimited funds. And he spends. And spends. And spends. Illitch wants another World Series title badly before he dies and it is clear he will stop at nothing to make sure that he gets one.

He is doing this in a dying, mid-market city and making it work. The Tigers again are near the top of the AL Central and right there for a Wild Card spot again.

So as I sat and watched a team with Prince Fielder and Miguel Cabrera dominate the Tribe, all I could think about was the one thing that separates these two mid-western downtrodden baseball cities – ownership.

Over the last six, seven, eight years, the whispers of the Dolan ownership group’s “cheapness” became chatter. The chatter became yells, the yells became screams. All along the way, I have defended Larry and his son Paul. To me, it was their right to run the franchise the way they wanted to; their philosophy was to build a strong farm system, raise their own young talent, watch them grow into major league players, and “spend when the time is right.”

SIDE NOTE – that quote above is one that will go down in Cleveland Sports infamy with Art Modell’s “I had no choice,” and Bill Belichick’s “diminishing skills” explanation after he cut Bernie Kosar.  

In 2005, they caught lightning in a bottle with a young core of players and won 93 games before collapsing the last week of the season. At the time, the 93 wins were the most for any American League in the Wild Card era to not make the playoffs. Two years later, that same core group, led by Grady Sizemore, CC Sabathia, Victor Martinez, and Jhonny Peralta, won the AL Central and were one game away from the World Series before they choked on a 3-1 ALCS lead.

Since then, the Indians have yet to finish over .500.

Again, throughout this time, I defended the Dolan philosophy. Every three to four years, a window of contention would open when their young core players would come into their own. They just had to take advantage of it, as they did in 2007. But the nostalgia quickly wore off for the casual fan, starting in 2008 when the first of many fire sale trades were made to restock the farm system. Their top trading chips Sabathia, Cliff Lee, and Victor Martinez were shipped out for a bevy of prospects that were supposed to make up the next core group that would have the Indians contending again by 2012.

But as we have seen, the margin of error with the Dolan ownership is almost nil. Notice a change in that last sentence. I used to be a guy who would say “the margin of error in this market….” But no more. Detroit is the exact same kind of market as Cleveland. The cities share similar economic challenges. They are both proud, tough, blue collar towns that have become national punchlines at times and are viewed as key battleground areas politically.

The Dolan Family has every right to run this team they way they do. They paid (or should I say completely OVERPAID) for the right to do so. But with that said, in 2012, their model isn’t working. The Indians have become a farm team for the Yankees, the Red Sox, the Rangers, the Angels, the Dodgers, etc etc. They watch as their young players like Sabathia, Lee, and Martinez rise to stardom and then are traded as they approach free agency.

The latest player that will go down this road is Shin-Soo Choo. Everyone knows that Choo, a free agent after the 2013, will either be traded this winter or next season, or walk out the door to a big market team. Whatever he can command on the open market, the Dolan ownership would never even consider matching.

Then you had last season’s “window of contention” allegedly fly wide open. GM Chris Antonetti said the plan be dammed, he was going to go for it, and added Ubaldo Jimenez for their top two pitching prospects. This move screamed for the Indians to add payroll and charge full steam ahead in 2012. Instead, they failed to follow up that “all in” move with additional acquisitions that would bolster the team. The front office, knowing their hands are tied fiscally, refused to add a third year to a deal for LF Josh Willingham and watched him walk to the Twins for $21 million over three years, a deal that screams “club friendly,” unless you are under the Dolan umbrella.

Look, signing Willingham was not going to change anything with the way the majority of the pitching staff has performed this season. But the move just illustrates a disturbing pattern. Even when the Indians were in or near first place, they had a hard time drawing fans. While the Tigers and their $130 million payroll are fifth in the majors in attendance with an average of over 34,000 fans, the Indians are dead last at just over 20,000. That number is only going to go down with this recent 10-game losing skid.

It is not the product on the field that is responsible for keeping people away from Progressive Field. Talk to people around town. Listen to talk radio. Scroll through Twitter. The Dolan family ownership is despised in this town. Watching Randy Lerner sell the Browns to billionaire Jimmy Haslam certainly isn’t doing them any favors either. Even the most ardent Dolan supporters like I was for so long, have turned to the dark side. The market size can’t be used as a crutch. The Detroit model has debunked that theory. You get a deep pockets billionaire owner, pair him with a smart, shrewd veteran baseball man to run the team, and watch as your team competes for the playoffs from year to year.

Larry and Paul Dolan are nice people. But they are in completely over their heads owning a baseball team.

Check this tweet from the Detroit News Tiger beat writer Lynn Henning upon hearing the news yesterday that Antonetti told the media that Manny Acta’s job for 2013 was safe (and rightfully so may I add):

 

Lynn is right. Even from the outside, the Dolan’s have a negative image.

The problem they face is that the Indians are their business, not their play thing. They are in this to make money first and win championships second, no matter what is said publicly. Again, they have every right not to deficit spend, but any sort of goodwill they had in this town is long gone. They have alienated this fan base to the point that they are dead last in attendance and the core of diehard Indians fans is shrinking by the year.

I am an Indians season ticket holder that organizes my group. Over the last two years, I have had to beg a couple of people to stay on and a few others to add more games just so I wouldn’t have to give up my seats. One of those people emailed me yesterday morning and said “Does anyone want my seats for Sunday, I’m done with them. Go Browns!” I know this winter I will for sure be losing people and will have to search high and low just to be able to keep my seats, which have been in my family for decades. My father, who would have turned 70 today, is probably spinning in his grave.

I’ve said this many times, I bleed Wahoo Red, White, and Blue. I grew up loving the Indians and going to games with my father and brother in the 80′s when nobody was there. I am old enough to remember the bad old days. Well, those days are coming back, if they aren’t here already. It is a direct reflection on the ownership. I’ve been slow to come around, but I am finally here.

It is time for the Dolan family to find themselves a Dan Gilbert or a Jimmy Haslam and get out.

Larry Dolan paid $323 million for the Indians in 2000. According Forbes Magazine’s MLB Valuations List published in March, the Indians were valued at $410 million. If the Dolan’s are so concerned with making a profit, here is their chance. Get Mark Cuban on the horn. Call Dan Gilbert and check his interest. The clock has struck midnight on this ownership group.

It is time to do right by the city they love so much. Sell the team to a billionaire.

 

  • mgbode

    150 comments for the Tribe after Browns season has sort of started. This has got to be a record of some sort.

  • nj0

    We’ve got something new to gripe about.

  • ElectrifyingUno

    So this past winter with a rotation of Masterson, Jimenez, Tomlin, Lowe, McAllister, Gomez, and Carmona you would have added another starter? GM of the year. Then me and you can play LF and First base. Interesting.

  • https://twitter.com/jimkanicki jimkanicki

    other than revenue sharing, enormous tv contract, player salary cap, ohio’s football heritage, and the most successful sporting league in the history of the solar system,,,

    that’s a very good comparison jay.

  • nj0

    2011 ERA+ (100 = lg avg, above 100 = good)
    Fausto – 74
    Tomlin – 92
    Carrasco – 85
    Jimenez – 77
    McAllister – 65
    Huff – 96
    Gomez – 87
    Lowe – 70

    Yes, I would have added another starter or two.

  • mgbode

    hmmm. for one, as shown below, it wouldn’t have been a bad idea.

    but, you were trying to argue that we were trading for pitching when we needed hitting (Ubaldo – and then we traded for more pitching in Lowe in the offseason when we could have used that $5 mil on a 1B or LFer).

    so, this past winter that rotation would have been: Masterson, Tomlin, McAllister, Gomez, and Carmona

    what GM in his right mind would have been comfortable starting the year that way?

  • ElectrifyingUno

    Awesome, a nine to ten man rotation and who’s in left and 1st base? A scarecrow and a statue.

  • nj0

    I think I showed pretty clearly that pitching is and always was a bigger issue for this team. You’re the one who originally claimed the opposite.

    Look, keep obsessing about LF/1B. I realize that’s the mantra for the angry fan. Far be it from to ask that some new information force you to reconsider your opinion.

  • markn95

    To the commenters who are defending those damn dirty Dolans–I respect your opinions, I really do. It’s not easy being in the minority, especially when you’re up against a very vocal majority. I just can’t bring myself to agree with you. Why? Everyone, from Chris Perez to the people on talk radio, are focusing on the Indians’ attendance. Yes, they are in last this year. But guess what? There’s a team that finishes last in attendance EVERY YEAR in baseball. The sun still rises the next day in that city and, 99 times out of 100, those teams do not leave town.

    It’s the TV money everyone should be looking at. If you haven’t noticed, there is a gold rush in rights fees going on right now. In the DVR age, live sports sells at a gigantic premium. Cable networks, cable companies, advertisers, and, ultimately, viewers, are driving the price of rights fees into the stratosphere. The San Diego Padres are about to sell for $800 million, with $200 million being directly connected to the 30-year TV rights deal they just signed. That’s right, the small market San Diego Padres.

    My point is that Larry and Paul (or is it Art and David?) may well indeed be “losing” money on the Indians (accounting being what it is, I’m sure they could produce a spreadsheet that “proves” this). But what they’re losing on the team, they’re making up for with a little company called STO. You know what that latter outfit pays the Cleveland Indians for the right to air their games? $30 million per year. Then take a look at the TV deals that have been signed by clubs in the last 2 years whether it’s a big market, small market, or medium market. You’ll see a huuuge gulf. These guys are not poor, they’re cheap, and there’s got to be better businessmen out there who can exploit this situation.

  • nj0

    To this I have no rebuttal.

  • nj0

    And as we complain about the $30M Dolan may or may not have made in a year, the Horseshoe has grossed $66.5M in the last three months.

  • SDA

    I felt the same way, but they did not address any of the off season issues. They try and say whats here has to perform better. If you add a few pieces this could have been very different. The stress put on the rest of the team to over produce in order to make up for the obvious holes in the lineup and the pitching staff put way to much pressure on the rest of the team. But they will field the same team next year expecting different results

  • SDA

    But this is soooo much fun!!!!

  • mgbode

    it is the TV rights. is SD really signing 30yrs for $200mil? that’s peanuts. can’t be $7mil/year.
    anyways, the difference in TV deals between LA, Dallas, etc. and Cleveland is just going to continue to widen not narrow.
    and as far as the TV deals. there is usually a gulf when new deals are signed. Indians inked theirs in 2008 and MLB has to sign-off on it (to prevent shady dealings between owned companies). at the time, it was a fair deal. plenty of teams are in the same boat.

  • mgbode

    all that being said. the well is poisoned, they need to sell and give someone else a shot. it would take too much to win back the fans at this point.

  • http://twitter.com/bbo13 B-bo

    I wouldn’t call it “new”

  • https://twitter.com/jimkanicki jimkanicki

    basketball players are surely paid what they’re worth. there are other ‘markets’ for players in other countries and so if lebron was worth 3x more to a team, it seems unlikely that so many other teams would disdain such a lucrative moneymaking opp.

    your ‘players are not paid their market value’ statement makes the naive assumption that 20 teams and their fans would continue to pay to watch their teams play washington generals to lebron’s globetrotters. more probably no salary cap in nba means ~20 contracted teams, means less interest,means smaller market, means less revenue (for owners *and* players), means no way a team can afford to pay a lebron 60MM/yr.

  • mgbode

    very interesting point. i sort of disagree with the “other country” portion (until the Chinese Basketball Association gets really going in 10-15yrs), but the 2nd point is a good one.

    in baseball, having the best aging players all combine on one team certainly stacks the deck against the rest of the league, but it is not an unconquerable mountain (due to baseball being a game of ups and downs and small sample sizes in the playoffs).

    in basketball, even if you add the 7yr team-control, stacking the deck like that would almost certainly create dynasties (like they did in the 50s and 60s) and would be a much tougher mountain to climb (as we have seen with the Miami Heat). basically, you’d have to be nearly perfect drafting (like OKC) to even have a shot at competing.

  • mgbode

    ok, looked up the deal this morning. $1.2bil/20yr deal w/ $200mil upfront (going to the new owners making a $600mil deal look like an $800mil deal).

    So, it is $60mil/year for 20yrs. Of course, SD is a bigger market than Cleveland and has a ton more $$ per capita as well along with many more big businesses for the suites, ads, etc.

    here’s my favorite article on all this stuff too:
    http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/2012/writers/albert_chen/04/23/baseball-television-deals/index.html

  • https://twitter.com/jimkanicki jimkanicki

    (had this teed up to your reply to me..)
    why jon! how ungenerous, surely even Lynn G. Henning has a miss now and then.

    of course the benighted franchises will draw. there’s no doubt our current TEAM USA longs for an NBA of Miami, Ft Lauderdale, Las Vegas, LA x3, NYC x3, and Honolulu. and who can blame them, after all, everyone has a right to work where they want, right?*

    the question i raised is whether such an egalitarian system would be able to sustain the current national interest, thus the ratings/mechandising revenue streams, once the great unwashed in cold or flyover locales realize their irrelevance.

    *this is the common and silly chant among the ‘sensible’ when amare or chris paul, or carmelo, or now kevin love(?) hold their teams/fans hostage to their egos. on par with ‘he’s a competitor’ for inane loathsomeness.

  • Steve

    No salary cap in the NBA likely equals MLB. Most teams can’t afford to pay the top end guys what a couple markets could. Not as extreme as you point out, but somewhere down that road. This is the challenge that the Dolans face.

  • Steve

    Except that the great unwashed still show interest. Ratings for the NBA or MLB are the highest when the Lakers, Yankees, etc are playing big games. People may be fairweather fans, or interested in the storylines, but it would seem to behoove the leagues to make sure their most storied big-market teams have the advantage.

  • mgbode

    short term ratings do not necessarily derive long-term ratings, which I believe is mr. kanicki’s point on this matter.

    an advantage, yes it helps. an non-competitive landscape, no.

  • Steve

    John Hart lived off Hank Peters acquisitions – Alomar, Baerga, Belle, Thome, Ramirez, Nagy. And this doesn’t recognize that the front office hasn’t really changed. Shapiro was here when Peters was in charge, and Antonetti was here when Hart was in charge. There wasn’t some vast overhaul. And Shapiro traded for Cabrera, Choo and Santana. He’s made some very good trades.

  • mgbode

    baseball isn’t quite as bad as basketball as 1 elite player can change a team much more in the NBA, but, yes, it is one of the challenges.

  • Steve

    I feel that argument may be specious. The Yankees or Lakers have been driving short-term ratings for a long time now. The leagues haven’t collapsed in on themselves. They’re about as strong as they ever have been.

  • mgbode

    thank you for going back that far. I had thought of looking up Hart’s initial successful years, but didn’t want to put in the extra time :)

  • mgbode

    Lee Stevens is the 5th Beatle :)

  • https://twitter.com/jimkanicki jimkanicki

    the great unwashed still show interest.
    do they? i’m not so sure.

    does the casual sports fan in columbus follow the nba? in kansas city? in seattle? from where i sit it seems MLS is doing a great job capitalizing on marketing to the neglected/unwashed metro areas that nba players dont want to play for. ditto for cities without MLS franchises… do they pay attention to the NBA in cincy? louisville? pittsburgh?

    i think that’s a ‘no’ but cant be sure. you wont persuade me that the milwaukees, detroits, indys, clevelands, arent critical to the success of the nba. unfortunately, the nba shows little sign of understanding this.

    the same disdain for ‘midmarket’ cities exists in MLB but it’s driven more driven by scott-boras-money-grab than it is lebron’s jetskis-and-stripclubs.

  • mgbode

    fair enough. I didn’t qualify my statement enough. If the competitive advantage of the Lakers/Yankees seemed impossible to overcome, then the long-term ratings would suffer (there could very well be a short-term spike in awe of an elite team, but that storyline would get old and interest would fade).

    the best thing for MLB’s ratings has been that Boston/NYY/Philly have had very good teams nearly every year, but that those teams do not win the championship every year either.

    it’s tougher in the NBA where you can almost always pick out 4 teams that have a championship shot every year (other than the Dallas and maybe 1st Miami championship). But, there are enough OKC’s, Cleveland’s (during LeBron’s years), San Antonio’s, etc. to keep fans hoping their teams can compete if they draft well enough.

    one of the reasons for the new CBA was to keep that hope alive as an effect of the LeBron/Bosh defection to join Wade was that fans saw the competitive landscape changing.

  • mgbode

    i somewhat disagree on both points.

    for one, plenty of people in those non-NBA cities follow the NBA because basketball is the most played sport in the USA. now, they get to pick whatever team they would like to since they don’t have a team, which means they are usually bandwagoners (not sure about Seattle, but I’d bet they follow closely enough to root against OKC).

    the mid-markets are definitely crucial to the success of the league, but the new CBA did take steps towards showing they understand it. the hard part is they have to do so in a way that doesn’t completely take away the players “right to free agency” or they will lose in court. so, it is incentive based. not perfect by any means, but we’ll see how it works in the next few years when the CBA is in full effect (which it is not yet and the reason why Chris Paul and Dwight Howard still had much more power over their teams)

  • SDA

    Through all these comments supporting the Dolans from you I see one theme. No matter what the Indians will not win a world series. So I guess I should just not support them anymore because I have enough heartache with the rest of the Cleveland teams

  • Steve

    You seem to be making assumptions to questions you don’t have answers for. I’m not sure what the casual fans in non-nba markets do over the winter. I don’t think we should really care though.

    You’re always going to see local ratings lean toward local teams. Bully for MLS in finding some niches to take advantage of, but they are not an example of a model organization. It’s a victory lap for washed up European players, and anyone that is developed here gets snapped up quickly by a B-rate European side. MLS is the equivalent of Independent League baseball. Maybe you like the sport that much, maybe they’ve got a local team that’s easy for you to get to the park, but they’re never going to thrive.

    Maybe middle America is critical to the success of the NBA, but it’s only when their team isn’t in it. Lakers-Celtics draws huge ratings, Cavs-Spurs had almost no one tune in. The Detroits, Milwaukees, Indianapolises didn’t tune in to support their brethren as much as they did to watch the “name” markets.

    And, as an aside, I don’t get the ripping of Boras. He’s doing his job. The guys who sign him are only interested in one thing – maxing out their salary. You don’t sign Boras if you’re willing to give a hometown discount. The guy just does his job.

  • Steve

    Where in this conversation am I supporting the Dolans. I’ve pointed out the challenges they must overcome elsewhere in this comment section, so maybe it would be best for you to address those comments where they appear.

  • mgbode

    cmon, MLS is at least AA for Europe, no? :)

  • Steve

    That would presume that MLS is developing players for Europe, which isn’t really happening. European teams sign any 15-20 year old who even shows a lick of promise and develop them locally.

  • Steve

    Sure, if we ever get that point, we may be able to expect a drop in long-term ratings. But should that not have happened in the by now? The Lakers and Celtics have dominated for decades upon decades. Same with the Yankees. And not only do these leagues still thrive, they do best when they show these teams at their best.

  • Steve

    The drafting changed – the biggest thing that needed to happen. As much as we criticize the Shapiro and Mirabelli “promotions” they really weren’t promotions. The same thing just happened to O’Dowd in Denver. He still kept a noteworthy title, but he has less control over the direction of the team.

  • sda

    But dont you think that has as much to do with small market teams at least having a chance to bring down the giant. daviv and goliath syndrom So if the Indians were to put a real product on the field ala the tigers the money would start pouring in. It wasnt that long ago you could sit at atigers game and listen to chants of “lets go redwings” . Illich puts money in the team and wah-la they are selling out.

  • The_Real_Shamrock

    Lee Stevens never got the respect he deserved!

  • Natedawg86

    Butts in seats per win or with respect to winning percentage would be interesting. People aren’t going to shell out a lot of cash if you have one of the worst teams, at least in basketball or baseball where you have significantly more home games than football.

  • Natedawg86

    Spend millions on the team, then get rid of all the assets, and do not bring in new ones. Train new employees and mentor them to be successful, and then get rid of them. Not a good business practice.

  • mgbode

    exactly. the 2 needed components for bonanza ratings are both a david and a goliath.

    stern has got to be frothing at the mouth with the anticipation of OKC v. Miami moving forward (for instance).

  • SDA

    In almost every post on these message boards all you do is make excuses for why the Indians “can’t” win. I get that your entitled your opinion and much of what you say is to some extent plausible. but if I were to take your comments as gospel then what I take away is that the Indians have NO chance of winning a world series without divine intervention. That being the case then If I limit myself financially to supporting teams I want to see win then my money is better spent elsewhere.

  • Chemo

    This article is really disappointing. The Tigers have a bigger market and a dying owner who’s willing to throw away his money because he won’t have it for long. In 2007, when the Indians were tied for the best record in baseball, the Tigers outdrew them by nearly a million fans. A million!

    The Indians are the best-managed team in Cleveland, by far, and all anyone does is crap on the owners. It’s ridiculous. Who else is really going to come here? No owner wants to come to Cleveland and flush money down the toilet trying to buy a title. Billionaires didn’t get rich by being idiots.

  • Steve

    Not necessarily. There’s a reason Knicks-Lakers is the afternoon game this coming Christmas.

    And you still seem to think that Detroit and Cleveland are the same market. Detroit is almost twice as big. There was a lot more money to pour in. It also should be noted that Illitch had extra money to spend after the NHL lockout. The Red Wings could no longer outspend everyone, leaving extra money to funnel over to his other team.

  • Steve

    Where have I said the Indians can’t win? You’re putting words in my mouth – a sign that your initial position is a poor one.

  • SDA

    Im saying they cant win you are giving the excuses. I want to know how they can win

  • thebav

    Would it really surprise anyone if we found out in 2020 that Illitch died in 2009 and the Tigers’ front office has just been doing whatever the hell they want since…

  • Michael Noll MNinstitute.com

    Great post. Right on target. The Dolan family shouldn’t be anywhere near a professional sports team.