After the avalanche of personal financial losses combined with the inability to spend to bolster a flagging franchise and heavily backloaded contracts, the Mets fell from legitimate World Series contender and big market spender to scrimper and saver. They scoured the scrapheap to find bargains and hoped to remain competitive while the organization was rebuilt from top to bottom with a drastically reduced payroll at the big league level and an ownership under siege from all angles. Attendance collapsed and fans called—prayed—for the Wilpons to sell the franchise. The Mets had no money to keep their own free agents such as Jose Reyes, nor to buy the bigger names available on the market. Rookies got the chance to play not out of development nor having won jobs outright, but because they had no one else to put out there.
Between the lines you can read the clear disappointment from media members who’ve made it their life’s mission to prove that their initial assessments of the Wilpon financial nightmare would eventually result in them unloading the Mets to pay their bills. They made their statements, factually, in the beginning. Then the tenor changed to reflect the “I want to be right,” dynamic.
Howard Megdal, who wrote a book regarding the Mets and Madoff, is constantly shifting field position from one area to the next as if it was a preplanned or desperate attempt to wind up being accurate in his projections about something. Much like the Wilpons, he’s adapting, except the Wilpons are doing it successfully.
This piece on Capital New York refers to the attendance figures and the bond ratings for Citi Field being lowered by Standard and Poor’s because of poor on-field projections and attendance; this latest one indulges into the same random speculation that’s been evident in the reporting from the start but was more effectively camouflaged then as opposed to now.
I’m not questioning the math used by Megdal and Richard Sandomir of the New York Times, but I am questioning the interpretation of the math and the agendas behind the interpretation.
Does any of this—the bonds, the debt, Madoff—matter now? Or will a rejuvenated Mets club with some money to spend and young players showing their wares at the big league level breathe new life into a jaded fanbase and improve the situation to the point that the bond rating rebounds? And is it time to move on from the endless prophecies of financial doom and accept that the Wilpons are going to survive as owners of the Mets?
Few if any predicted a settlement with the Wilpons in the lawsuit that Irving Picard, the trustee in the Madoff recovery case, had filed. Yet they settled. Megdal writes that the trustee “had” to settle for fear of the Wilpons being unable to pay as if the circumstances of the settlement (the “why”) render the result meaningless. I thought the end result was the key. It’s like a homegrown club winning a World Series or a group of free agent mercenaries winning the World Series—what’s the difference?
There is a correlation between payroll and attendance, but as with any position of advocacy, the “why” is twisted to suit this line of thought. Teams with a low payroll are:
- Rebuilding, financially-strapped clubs like the Mets and Indians
- Functioning with a low payroll through conscious ownership decision and profiteering like the Marlins
- Dealing with not having any money like the Rays and doing the best they can under those constraints.
It doesn’t take complicated formulas to determine why teams draw or don’t draw. The Rays’ attendance woes stem from a lack of fan interest without connection to how good the team is. Cubs fans go to the games no matter what. With the Yankees, we’ll see in 2013-2014 how much the outlandish prices fans pay for tickets, parking, food, etc., plus a team that’s not as strong as it’s been in the past will influence fan enthusiasm/apathy. Knowing the Yankees fanbase, I’d say their attendance will fall commensurately with how their mediocre current roster is expected to play.
An interesting case study to the on-field product/attendance/payroll connection will be the 2013 Red Sox. They’ve had a top four payroll and a top four attendance figure in the AL in recent years, but their 2012 season was a disaster and there are still ominous signs for a team that’s spent to improve and will have a payroll around sixth or so in MLB, but might not be significantly better in 2013 than the .500 club they were before they gutted the team in August of 2012. By the summer, the fans might stop going to Fenway. Bad team=bad attendance independent of payroll.
Each team in each city has a reason that there may be an attendance ceiling or that it may plummet through the floor. There’s no theory of relativity and immutable law of the universe to explain why this is the case for every single club because it’s different for every single club.
It’s market-driven and cyclical. It can’t be chalked up to “big payroll=big attendance” any more than “big money star players=championship team”. That was proven by the Angels, Marlins and Red Sox just last season. The A’s won their division and were twelfth in the AL in attendance. Since the Rays became contenders in 2008, the highest they’ve finished in attendance on the AL is ninth. Usually they’re last or next-to-last.
You can’t make a state like Florida suddenly love going to baseball games by putting together championship caliber teams (as both the Rays and Marlins have done in the past 15 years); by spending money (as the Marlins have done); or by building a beautiful new park with luxurious, non-baseball-related amenities (as the Marlins have also done). It doesn’t work because the fans in Florida are not interested. In New York, once the Mets fans believe that the team is for real, they’ll go to the games again. When the team was playing well over their heads into the summer for the past two seasons, the fans didn’t come back to the park in droves because they (accurately) didn’t believe in its reality. It’s not hard to calculate.
Few expected the Mets to have the willingness or ability to re-sign David Wright to a contract that he deemed acceptable. The prevailing view was that they’d tender an offer that was done so for its own sake with zero intention of keeping him, then keep him for his star status while he was signed, trade him in July of 2013, or let him leave as a free agent. But they jumped in with a major, fair market deal to keep their most marketable player. Few expected them to have any money available at all until possibly after the 2013 season when Jason Bay and Johan Santana both come off the books, but now with the loan they’ve taken out against SNY, they have money to play with.
There’s a fine line between objective reporting and, “Look, I was right.” Where the fuzziness ends and clarity begins is in the eye of the reader, but it’s become an egomaniacal prophecy to be “right” and prove that the Wilpons are shady characters who behaved either as outright greedy criminals or were willing accomplices without getting their hands dirty as they should have known something was amiss, but didn’t want to ask questions to stop the money from coming in.
In the end, it no longer matters because they’re getting the house in order financially and on the field, like it or not.
All through Megdal’s piece about S&P, there’s an underlying “Haha!!! Look!! It’s not just me that’s saying this!!!” along with the caveats to provide enough wiggleroom to save face in certain quarters that don’t know any better and say, after the fact, that “X was always a possibility,” with another phantom trapdoor looming ahead.
The media members haranguing the Wilpons are doing so to: A) bolster their own arguments; and B) stir up discontent in the fan base with flashy, summarized assertions that, when dissected, are not the entire story. They’re playing on people’s ignorance of the ins and outs of the financial quagmire the Wilpons found themselves in rather than explain all possibilities in objective terms, simply and concisely. They report with an end in mind and that can’t be classified as reporting at all.