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The Morning After: Was It Worth It?

I'm all right Jack, keep your hands off of my stack.
I'm all right Jack, keep your hands off of my stack.

The All-Star Game is over now. Everyone has gone home. The seats are empty, the Yankee trash has all been cleared out, and the East Coast media's stealth jets quickly returned to their secret underground bunker deep beneath Cobra Island. So the morning after the party, the team, the fans, and the community had to wake up, rub their bloodshot eyes and wonder the third most common morning-after thought (after "where am I?" and "who is that sleeping in my bed?"). That is to say, was it worth it? Cynicism alert after the jump.

You may have run across a few stories like this one recently. They spread faster than kudzu whenever a mega sporting event comes to town. If you believe them, hosting an All-Star Game is like seeding a cloud with money. Bud Selig makes the same promises to a different community every year: for one glorious week in July, every hose, faucet, and urinal in their city will spurt legal tender faster than Deepwater Horizon. All you have to do is hold out a bucket and catch it. Watch him promise to perform his King Midas act on Kansas City's shit economy and even shittier baseball franchise just last month. Who wouldn't want a free $70 million?

Seriously, listen to Bud continue. "In the '90s, you had to beg somebody to take the game. Now I've got a list of teams, and every time I award one there are some people, and I know who they are, who are mad. That's all right. They'll get over it. I don't spend a lot of time worrying about those things anymore." Look at her, son, isn't she a peach? I'm going to break ten other fellas' hearts if I sell you this little darlin' right now, but you know what? I'm going to do it because I like you. This guy has all the charm and subtlety of a used-car salesman.

You can probably guess where this is going. The promises are about as genuine as Barry Bonds' 762 career home runs. I know it's a shock, but Bud is pulling every last one of those 70 million dollars out of his very own ass. Economists have been over this for years. The figures that MLB passes on to promoters are based on totally bogus assumptions of consumer spending. Their marketing "studies" just estimate the total number of visitors (optimistically), multiply by their estimated expenditures (optimistically), and then multiply that again by some arbitrary number intended to model the effect of circulation. Bud can promise you any monetary sum you want with that equation.

The estimates don't mention that most of the spending doesn't stay in the community. Check out the concessions arrangements just for the game itself. That adds up to a nice wad of cash when you consider the prices of these commodities within the stadium. Too bad all of it gets hauled off by Aramark to their corporate base in Philadelphia before being passed on to their shareholders. Aramark itself is also one of the scummiest of all scumbag employers, so it's no great gain to the people working the stands either. The workers probably do just as well during a five-game homestand as they do during the All-Star Break.

And that's the other thing MLB forgets to mention. A lot of that promised revenue would have been made even without an All-Star Game. When fans decide to spend their money at the game, they aren't spending it on other things like movies and shopping. It's more zero-sum economics than absolute advantage. Real people have things like budgets and aversion to traffic, and the All-Star Game crowds out other venues for consumer spending.

So the benefit to the community is questionable at best. People keep looking for evidence and not finding it, so odds are that the effect is negligible. At the end of the day, the host city probably spends more on services (traffic and safety, sanitation, etc.) and promotion than it gains back in taxable sales. There are vague claims about the long-term benefits of national exposure, but that's a similarly hazy issue. The bald truth is that very few Ted and Bettie Studebakers (Harvard-Radcliffe Class of '55) are going to jet out from Boca Raton to drop ten grand at your next block party just because they saw Katella Avenue's fancy banners on TV. Jan Norman pointed some of this out in the OC Register's business section without taking much of a stand. That's fair enough. In the grand scheme of things, the MLB All-Star Game is a relatively minor issue. A nominal loss can easily be justified by the satisfaction it brings to the fans. Making people happy isn't such a bad thing, after all.

Unfortunately, Bud's trickle-down economics don't end with the All-Star Game. It's symptomatic of professional sports on the whole, with MLB as perhaps the most shrewd antagonist. New stadium construction is the perpetual issue. Owners want new facilities so they can sell more tickets at higher prices, and they usually want local municipalities to pay for them. There's a lot more money on the line with a sports facility than a one-off like the All-Star Game, yet the leagues and owners sell them with the same artificially flavored Kool-Aid.

That's what made this event such an interesting bellwether. As Rev observed in the postgame yesterday, the fact that the event came and went with nothing but smiles from both sides is significant. The City of Anaheim didn't realize that they had been fleeced by Disney in the 1996 arrangement that renovated Angel Stadium until years too late. By that time, Anaheim mayor Curt Pringle could only take out his frustrations on Arte Moreno's ownership group with a facile lawsuit. The Chamber of Commerce is still fist-bumping over how much revenue they'll pull down from the game (at least in public), so they must not be any brighter than before. But at least Moreno has built a reputation as an owner willing to please rather than waiting to be served, so there are good reasons to believe that Arte will plow the right field heading into the stadium's lease year in 2016.

The same can't be said of everyone. During that heart-felt eulogy to George Steinbrenner during the pre-game last night, Derek Jeter said that the Boss had done a lot for his community. Not to speak ill of the dead, but the last thing George Steinbrenner did for the Bronx before he died was to demolish their public park, build the world's biggest mall with an entrance fee on top of it, then left them with the bill. That's a bitch move, boss. Teams and sponsors with guilty consciences use events like the All-Star Game to publicly wash their hands of the negative PR. They practically fall over each other to make charitable donations with the cameras up close. That's the ugly reality we have to live with.

I won't pretend that the Angels are, well, angels. But Moreno seems to understand that the community shares in the "ownership" of the team. They're not just another cash flow to be maximized, and a sports franchise is not just another billionaire plaything to show off to your other billionaire buddies the next time you play a few holes at Pebble Beach. (Can you guess which LA-area sports owner I'm thinking of here? Here's a hint: he never won a Pulitzer Prize.) Fan loyalty will tolerate a lot of abuse--we're just dumb like that. Fortunately, at least a few owners realize that cultivating loyalty rather than abusing it is the key to pleasing everyone.

The point is, the All-Star Game is a promotion. The owner always wins. The league always wins. The fans and the community don't win often enough. We're all pretty much at the mercy of the league and the owner. If we try to stick up for ourselves, it usually ends up like this. As part of his sales pitch in Kansas City last month, Bud said, "I've seen what All-Star Games can do for franchises, and this is really going to help David Glass and the whole Royals organization." Let's see, slumping finances, inept management, apathetic fans--the precedent he must have had in mind was the 2006 game in Pittsburgh. Yes, the All-Star Game did wonders for their team. So did their new stadium. Oh wait, no they didn't. However, I'm sure they were both great things for Kevin McClatchy, the team's principal owner at the time. Even the miserable Pirates were worth three times as much when McClatchy cashed out in 2007 as they were when he bought them in 1996. The Pirates are still miserable.

So don't believe the hucksters. Tell Bud he can shove those 70 million dollars back where they came from. I'm sure he's crying over the piss-poor ratings for his Fox-produced disaster from last night. Good. Let the bastard cry. The way the system works, municipalities will probably never break even on sporting events. Fortunately, we can still profit as fans from positive relationships between the community and the team. Owners who are willing to work at that are rare. A cheap ticket, a reasonably priced beer, a winning team on the field--it should be a right, but it's not. We just happened to get lucky. Just one more reason why everyone else in the league can go and suck it.