Detroit Tigers owner, 84 year old Mike Ilitch, desperately wants to bring a world series championship to Detroit. If you question that, you need not look any further than the $200+ million commitment he made to Prince Fielder. The Tigers were good last year, but took a huge hit when Victor Martinez was lost for the year. Instead of throwing up his hands and hoping for the best, Ilitch signed one of the biggest checks in baseball history to not only keep his team competitive, but make them more dangerous.
As a baseball fan, this is what you expect your owner to do. You want them to do everything in their power to win the World Series (within reason, of course. No one wants to see their owner greenlight $80+ million to John Lackey). However, in baseball, without a salary cap or floor, far too many owners hide behind the "small market" curtain, putting less than the minimum into their teams. This creates a gigantic divide in the sport, where the "thrifty" franchises are essentially farm teams for the spenders.
In light of the Fielder signing, SI.com's Joe Sheehan thought it appropos to shine a light on tightwad Royals owner, David Glass. While the Tigers are chasing a World Series ring, the Royals aren't even pretending to be interested in winning their own division. And there's something very wrong with this.
Contrast Ilitch to David Glass, the Royals owner. Glass has, since taking over the Royals in 1993, consistently been a hawk on labor issues, pressing for his Royals to get more of the money generated in other places, but rarely putting any money generated anywhere into the team.
Glass though, represents that other, more common strain of ownership, the one that refuses to make investments that could potentially put the team in the red. The Kansas City Royals, like the other teams in the smallest markets in baseball, collect money from ticket sales and local media rights. They also get equal shares of nationally generated revenue, such as for Sunday Night Baseball or the postseason or the All-Star Game, even if they rarely if ever show up in those slots. On top of that, they get free money just for existing. Yet the Royals' 2011 payroll (just north of $38 million, according to Cot's Contracts) was lower than it was in any year since 2005, low enough to nearly guarantee a profit if no one showed up at the park.
The crux of the matter is that these owners aren't in the business to win baseball games. They're in it for increased profits. Glass, the former CEO of Wal-Mart, runs his team as if it is a big chain store. Profit trumps all.
As Sheehan points out, Glass' payroll is so low that he's nearly guaranteed to turn a profit regardless of attendance or any other in-park revenue stream. Any income above that is all gravy. And that's just fine with him. The Royals will continue to ebb and flow from awful to mildly competitive without ever making the leap into contender while hiding behind the "small market" excuse. And the Royals attendance numbers reflect this, only selling 56% of their tickets during the 2011 season.
At some point, baseball is going to have to fix this because this is a huge problem. The Red Sox couldn't improve their team this offseason because of the luxury tax penalty for increasing their payroll. The luxury tax that goes to men like David Glass, who, instead of using that money to improve their team, as the system is intended, line their pockets with the extra cash.
And the fans are powerless. They're not showing up to Royals games, but the owner is still turning a profit. He couldn't care less. Not that you can't be good and thrifty. There are plenty of teams that are successful despite having a lower payroll (Tampa and Arizona come to mind). Neither of these teams are shelling out record contracts, but both win. Of course, despite this, Tampa and Arizona have two of the lowest attendance records in baseball.
Maybe contraction is the solution. Too many teams in cities that don't care about baseball. Miami will be a good case study on whether an investment on the field, as well as a new park, is what's needed to make people care about your team. But if it fails there, there's not much hope for the rest of the small and forgotten clubs.