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Daily coverage of the Mariners during the season and all year long.

May 7, 2012 at 9:05 AM

The perils of rebuilding: how “the right way” in theory can be absolutely the wrong way in real life

We’re now a full month into the MLB regular season and I thought I’d take a look at where things stand in terms of attendance. Not just for the Mariners, but overall in baseball. And in doing so, it was tough not to notice a trend or two.
One of the things that leaps out is that five of the six worst teams in the majors in terms of attendance are all clubs that, at one time or another during the “Moneyball” era of the past decade, have been hailed far and wide for rebuilding “the right way”.
Let me be clear, not everyone agrees that rebuilding the way the Oakland Athletics, Cleveland Indians, Tampa Bay Rays, Kansas City Royals and now, yes, the Mariners, have done is indeed correct. Other teams, as mentioned, have chosen to rebuild on-the-fly while remaining competitive in the interim. Some teams are not afraid of risking vast sums of capital on free agents who sometimes turn out to be busts, then spending even more money to correct those mistakes in the name of pushing a frontline product out there year after year so as not to weaken their brand.
And then, you have teams that do their rebuilding “the right way”.
What this means, in Moneyball-speak, is that teams pursue the cost-effective, bang-for-the-buck approach of growing the best young, cheap talent to form a core, then try to supplement it as it grows wth the most value-generating free agents out there. This will require a shrewd general manager — one who often gains a cult-like following in his local market, boosted by the occasional fawning national media clips — to shuffle all the pieces around at a whiz-bang pace. After all, maturing young talent starts to get expensive and it’s tough to time everything just right and keep them all. So, it’s a balancing act and the act itself often becomes the sport most worth watching for the biggest fans of these types of teams. There is a certain type of fan in these markets who derives more pleasure out of cheering for the process used by these teams than for any actual results generated on the field.
That’s why, by and large, almost every team rebuilding “the right way” never seems to have any immediate goals placed on them by fans of their style. After all, nothing would throw cold water on a process any more than setting a deadline for results and finding out that they weren’t met. Tough to cheer for a process that doesn’t work.
And so, for a significant number of fans in these markets, the process continues to be applauded while the results remain elusive. The fans of this process are, by nature, almost universally required to suspend any realistic analysis of the ownership of their teams, which — large, medium, or small market — are always run by individuals or corporations with wealth either in the billions or pushing that threshold. Owners who could — if so inclined — actually spend some of their own money beyond what is generated by their business to make the product more competitive. This is done in almost every business in America, after all. If you own a company putting out an inferior product that isn’t selling, you invest to change the product as quickly as possible. Very few business owners would actually spend less money, make their products worse for years at a time, then hope an understanding client base would wait until the company was ready to put out a better product.
And yet, that is what is happening in baseball with a number of teams rebuilding “the right way”.
And unlike our real world business scenario, the client bases of those baseball teams are not only subjected to an inferior product for years at a time, they are in most cases actually forced to subsidize the product through public-financing of ballparks that help owners not spend any additional money. It’s a crazy set-up, to be sure. One that works entirely against the concept of being a fan of a team for on-field reasons.
And it protects team owners. Unlike the Mom and Pop corner store that would go out of business selling inferior products no one wants for years at a time, baseball teams stay in business because public-financed stadiums help ensure team owners never lose any of their personal fortunes.
But as we now see with baseball attendance, there is a limit to how much longer owners can continue to tread water building “the right way”. Just like in real world business, the client bases of owners putting out an inferior product continue to shrink on a massive scale.
And in some markets, there is a limit to how much shrinkage any team can stand.

There are two current cases where the shrinkage is reaching is breaking point: that being Tampa Bay and Oakland.
The most obvious reasons are that neither team has a modern stadium financed with public dollars. As a result, owners worth nine figures in both markets are coming to the realization that their generated revenues alone soon won’t be able to sustain a viable product without them putting any additional money in. Without them risking their personal fortunes to sustain a competitive team.
We don’t have that problem in Seattle, where the taxpayers helped subsidize the majority of Safeco Field. Mariners owners are now sustaining the team entirely off the revenues generated by tickets, television, parking and food and merchandise concessions, having not put an additional dime of their own cash into the club since the ballpark opened.
Problem is, as the team rebuilds “the right way” attendance is shrinking lower and lower. The clients of their product are staying home in droves.
Television is not part of the ballpark equation and really, for the Mariners, it’s one of the few things enabling them to keep paying Ichiro and Chone Figgins $27 million per year while the rest of the team combined makes $55 million. It’s much easier for fans to watch the inferior product free of charge and their significant numbers helped get the Mariners a deal worth a substantial amount of money. But that TV deal is now outdated, audience numbers are down over where they once were and the M’s might have to wait a few years to get a new contract.
Hence, the continued payroll cuts so that M’s revenues alone can continue to subsidize the inferior product without owners putting in new cash. Why won’t owners put in new cash in the intertim to help the 13-17 team contend more quickly? A good question. We’ve detailed the financial losses suffered by top minority owner Chris Larson and of titular head Hiroshi Yamauchi as well as by Nintendo Corp. — parent company of the Redmond-based subsidiary Yamauchi tranferred his team shares to for estate planning purposes in 2004.
None of those three entities is exactly swimming in profits at the moment. Maybe that ties in to the team and maybe not. But those are the facts.
And so, like owners in Tampa Bay and Oakland, the folks running the Mariners have to be a tad nervous as they see the long-term prospects for their team running up against market realities of a fan base losing interest.
After all, the goal of any rebuilding plan — whether “the right way” or some other way — should be to keep fans interested long-term.
And yet, for all of their recent playoff success, the Rays still twice drew fewer than 10,000 fans to a series against the Mariners last week. The Rays are now the third-worst home draw in MLB despite again being in contention.
Those who point to the Rays as a model for rebuilding “the right way” can’t ignore this. That the decade of losing it took to secure the draft picks that helped the Rays form the talent base that launched their current incarnation all-but-killed-off any hopes of establishing a fan nucleus in an already-difficult market.
Not too long ago, the Indians were being hailed as an example of how to build “the right way”. They had the GM with the cult-following, the trendy front office assistants and all the young prospects with the limitless futures. Those same Indians, now in first place, sit dead last in MLB attendance with an average of just over 15,000 fans per game.
And yet, those attendance failures and the one in Oakland, will be ignored. They will be shrugged off as a casualty of bad baseball markets or poor economies.
Well, what about Kansas City and its newly-renovated ballpark? In a town that houses the Negro League Hall of Fame as part of a rich baseball history. A bad baseball market? Hardly. The Royals were this year’s trendy darkhorse pick among “the right way” crowd but got off to another stumbling start and now sit barely ahead of Seattle with MLB’s fifth-worst attendance. Fans simply aren’t buying in anymore.
Heck, what about Toronto? That market once led all of MLB in attendance and — like Seattle — set records. The Blue Jays have been rebuilding “the right way” going on 11 years and two different incarnations. They are off to a winning start, have the GM with the cult-like following and the usual hot prospects as well as baseball’s home run king. Their attendance, while improving slightly, is still bottom-third in MLB.
What do all of these teams have in common? They spent years playing irrelevant baseball seasons while they rebuilt “the right way” and chased fans off. Fans actually paying to go see games want to believe they are seeing something that is going to matter. When anyone but the most delusional of fans can see that contention is a pipedream come April, they aren’t going to go to the ballpark.
They learn to adopt a “wait-and-see” attitude. In the case of teams like the Rays, it’s wait-and-see until the final days of each regular season apparently.
Those running the Mariners, not too long ago, used to say they did not want to follow the path of clubs like the Indians because of the obvious off-field results. But now, that’s exactly what the Mariners are doing and results have been eerily similar as Seattle follows Cleveland down the attendance rabbit hole.
The big question now is how similar the fortunes of those franchises will be.
In other words, if and when the Mariners ever do produce a playoff caliber team beyond a few hot prospects, will anyone still be around to care? We’ll have our answer in another year or two. Or maybe three, maybe four. Maybe never.
No one can really say for sure when contention will happen. But if I’m the Mariners, I’m doing all I can to speed that contention date up. As these other franchises have taught us, the M’s don’t have unlimited time on their side.

Comments | Topics: Chone Figgins


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