One of the more interesting conundrums in sports is how the New York Mets have less money to spend on ballplayers than their crosstown big brother, the New York Yankees. It boggles the mind further when you realize the Mets’ budget is below or comparable to teams in smaller markets, with tiny, 100-year-old stadiums such as the Red Sox and Cubs. A Major League club in the US’s richest and most populous metropolis, its own cable channel, three consecutive years of record-breaking ticket sales, and a brand new stadium should be more well off, shouldn’t it? A team with that kind of financial support shouldn’t be thinking twice about eating Luis Castillo’s salary, bringing in Manny Ramirez, or rolling the dice on Ben Sheets. Should they?
Let’s try and figure out where all the riches are going.
The Mets sold more than 3.5 million tickets in 2006, more than 3.85 tickets in 2007, and topped 4 million tickets in 2008 (fans also “enjoyed” significant ticket price increases in each of those years). We know this because the Mets’ publicity department published chest-pounding press releases notifying the world of these record-breaking milestones. The team wanted to be sure that everyone knew just how popular and successful the franchise had become. In fact, the ticket sales had reached such enormous heights that it became fiscally irresponsible to continuing supplying the demand. Despite the profits gained from ever-increasing ticket prices, it became “better business” to lower the supply, increase the demand, and therefore raise prices even higher — by building a newer, smaller stadium. Citi Field not only increases profits via the simplicity of supply/demand, but also creates many new, highly profitable revenue streams that weren’t possible in Shea Stadium. For example, the naming rights, the “mini mall” and food chain establishments, the luxury boxes, expanded retail space, and a host of other moneymaking options. Of course, all these profit-generating channels are being billed as a “better fan experience” and an ideal place to bring the “whole family”. Indeed, Citi Field should be a much more comfortable and enjoyable place to watch a ballgame — but you get what you pay for, and you will pay dearly for that enhanced experience.
But the Mets haven’t gained any revenues from Citi Field yet … well, except for the $400M from Citibank, the rent deposits from the restaurants and retail stores, and the down payments from season ticket buyers. All the tickets sold in the last three years at Shea Stadium must have gone into the building of Citi Field. They must have drained that well dry, too, because the team needs another $83M in bonds. So we can guess that this Citi Field project won’t be helping to pay any salaries — yet.
Cable Company Revenues
Not every team in MLB has their own cable TV channel, but the ones that do are in a fantastic position to make MUCH more money than if they sold broadcasting rights to someone else. Unfortunately, a cable channel doesn’t simply generate revenue by virtue of existing — it has to produce shows that people want to watch.
When Mets games aren’t being broadcast, time has to be filled with something else. Whereas the YES Network, for example, produces high-quality, original programming such as Yankeeography and Center Stage. SNY, on the other hand, gives us Loudmouths, Wheelhouse, and Beer Money. You tell me which you’d rather watch. In fact, the one decent original program SNY had the rights to, and would have resonated with Mets fans, was unpromoted, buried in unusual time slots, and eventually pulled off the air by the producer (Playing for Peanuts).
Another interesting contrast between YES and SNY is this: SNY has brought nearly every personality on WFAN to the boob tube EXCEPT the most valuable and popular one — Mike Francesa. Love him or hate him, Francesa has the strongest sports radio listenership in the NY-Metro area (perhaps in all of the USA?). But the Yankees beat the Mets to the punch on getting him for YES. Please don’t explain that away via Francesa’s status as a Yankee fan — SNY’s motto is “all things NY sports”. In fact the SNY website features TWO Yankees blogs to only one for the Mets.
So although the Mets do indeed get to keep all of advertising dollars for games broadcast on their cable network, it’s up for debate as to whether they’re making much money from October to April.
Retail Sales and Licensing
Here the Yankees, once again, have a leg up on the Mets — but it’s not necessarily the Mets’ fault. When you have a history going back to the early 1900s, and rich with both Hall of Famers, you can sell a heckuva lot more jerseys and T-shirts emblazoned with player names — even if your official jersey doesn’t include player names!
In contrast, the Mets don’t have as much to sell when it comes to player-identifiable merchandise. While David Wright tees may outsell Derek Jeters, and “Seaver 41” throwback jerseys likely topple Ron Guidry’s “49”, the Mets can never compete with the Berras, Mantles, DiMaggios, Gehrigs, etc. — and that encompasses much more than shirts (i.e., memorabilia, photos, bobbleheads, etc.). So although the Mets do have the benefit of being in an area highly populated with baseball fans, and have a fairly loyal fan base, they simply don’t have the breadth of product opportunities to compete with the Bronx Bombers. And that’s BEFORE we begin discussing sales and licensing fees outside Metro-NY, and internationally.
Though, it can be argued that the Yankees have also done a much better job of creating opportunities since 1973 — when George Steinbrenner bought the club. By investing in the top players, and making winning a World Series their singular mission and measure of success, Steinbrenner resuscitated and invigorated a brand that could have fallen by the wayside. After all, how many people were buying Horace Clarke jerseys in 1968, or Fritz Peterson bobbleheads in the early 70s? The grand success of the Yankees in the 1990s turned Tino Martinez, Paul O’Neill, Scott Brosius, and David Wells into cult heroes, and to this day you still see Yankee fans wearing T-shirts with those names on the back. Maybe this fact hits home: today, are you more likely to see someone wearing a David Cone Yankees tee, or a David Cone Mets tee? Which brings us to the next factor …
Marketing and Promotion
Over the past 30 years, the Yankees have done a much better job of marketing and promoting their players. More to the point, they’ve done a better job of delivering, by paying attention to their fans. Whereas the Mets make knee-jerk decisions based on the avoidance of criticism by their fans base, the Yankees cultivate a positive relationship with their fans. In the end, this means more fans going into their pockets and handing over ducats to their favorite team.
Time and again, the Yankees know exactly what to do, and the Mets are standing around wondering how best not to screw something up. Prime example: the simultaneous closings of Shea and Yankee Stadiums. The Mets had no idea how to give a proper send-off, and found themselves fumbling around at the last minute putting together an embarrassing, makeshift event because they waited to see what the Yankees were going to do. Of course, you can’t emulate in two weeks what likely took the Yankees a year of planning, and the timing could not have been any worse. What could have been a happy, enjoyable celebration turned out to be a PR nightmare — it was more like a melancholic funeral than Irish wake.
The funny thing is, the Mets had a pretty neat and fairly original idea of having former players take down numbers from the wall as the season winded down, but they couldn’t even get that right — otherwise, we would have seen Dwight Gooden help Lee Mazzilli take down #16, and Wally Backman in town to take down #6 (I think Daryl Boston got the call?).
The Mets may not have the longtime winning tradition of the Yankees, but there have been ample opportunities in the last 25 years to better promote and market their “brand” and their individual players — and to bring in (or hold on to) marketable individuals (i.e., A-Rod, Vlad Guerrero, and most recently, Manny Ramirez). However branding is difficult without identity, and that’s where the Mets are at a loss. They simply can’t decide who they are or what they stand for, and have no connection to their target audience — which is loyal but ultimately confused (is the team focused on “meaningful games in October” or concerned about going over budget? are they building for a championship now, or for the future?). In the long run it costs the Mets millions — a wishy washy brand attracts wishy washy (read: fickle) customers.
The Wilpons claim the Ponzi scheme that took about $350M from Sterling Equities has no bearing on the Mets’ operations. But it sure is strange how the Mets’ hot stove season roared in like a lion and is leaving like a lamb. The Madoff debacle became public at the exact time Omar Minaya was in the middle of a hot streak in Las Vegas, picking up high-profile closers like a high roller at a craps table. Since then, there’s been a lot of talk about budget constraints, too-high salary demands, and waiting games. Could be a coincidence.
In the end, yes, the Mets are based in New York City, own their own superstation, and have attracted a loyal and rabid fan base that numbers in the millions. But they haven’t been able to make the most of those advantages in terms of dollars. The fact they share the town with the tradition-rich Yankees is mostly an excuse — one need only look to the mid-1980s, when the Mets owned New York. It was their own fault they failed to keep the momentum, and the past 10-15 years in particular has been blotted with a series of head-scratching decisions and confusion about goals and identity. Maybe Citi Field will help change that, but the current state of the economy suggests otherwise.