MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred recently reminded fans of what they often forget; their favorite professional sports teams are for-profit businesses first and foremost.
Every MLB off-season features the "Hot Stove" regalia of free agent signings, manager changes, and trades. This offseason has been especially active for the Miami Marlins. The franchise not only has changed hands but traded away several pieces of its 2017 roster with more moves possibly yet to be made.
The details of the trades, details of the sale, and recent comments made by MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred act as a reminder for fans of a truth that many would like to ignore. Professional sports franchises are like real estate. They are bought to be sold later, and that for a profit.
The back story
In 2002, former owner Jeffrey Loria bought the Marlins for $158.5m. The Marlins were five years removed from their first World Series title but had a promising roster about to win the franchise's second championship. Despite the on-field success, getting crowds to the stadium that the team shared with the NFL's Miami Dolphins was difficult.
After winning the 1997 World Series, the roster was immediately gutted to reflect the poor gate take. The process took longer after the 2003 championship but nonetheless occurred. From 2004 to 2011, the team managed just one season above .500 and continued to struggle with attendance.
In 2012, the Marlins began play in their own venue, Marlins Park. The stadium's construction was mostly financed using local tax revenues and sold to the public as an agreement that the payroll-slashing moves following the franchise's two World Series titles would be a thing of the past.
Poor returns in both attendance and the win column have followed despite the new facility. The team still has had only one winning season since 2003 and has annually ranked last in the National League in attendance. Despite those poor measurements of success, Loria sold the Marlins to the current ownership for $1.2b, a return of nearly 800 percent on his original investment.
Several factors, like the overall value of MLB as a whole and the potential of Marlins Park, helped Loria cash in regardless of his failure to either put a winning product on the field, convince South Floridians to attend games or land a naming rights sponsor for the stadium.
That brings the story to Wednesday, Dec. 20, when Manfred was interviewed by ESPN personality Dan Le Batard. Le Batard grilled Manfred in a way that MLB reportedly took issue with to ESPN officials. At the crux of Le Batard's criticisms, which Manfred denied, are allegations that MLB knew the Marlins' new ownership planned to make several significant payroll-slashing moves and approved the sale despite that.
The Manfred comment fans might have missed
Manfred responded that other recent roster rebuilds conducted by other franchises have produced World Series titles and that on-field success is cyclical. One particular sentence from Manfred during the interview should be the focus.
"Look, I think that it’s important for new owners to come in, evaluate the state of their franchise, decide where they think they’re headed long term and kind of write with a clean slate," he said.
While the context of that part of the conversation leaned more toward decisions regarding personnel, the larger conversation was about how the Marlins conduct their business as a whole. With that perspective, Manfred is speaking to the Marlins' new ownership evaluation of the business' prospects and how it can someday get the return that Loria got.
Whether that will happen remains to be seen, but the truth is the sale of the Marlins was bigger than just the Marlins. That $1.2b sale figure sets a new bar for future franchise sales in MLB. If Loria got $1.2b for a team at the bottom of the revenue pile that hasn't qualified for the postseason in almost a decade and a half, the owners of franchises with better returns and more on-field success should be able to demand prices nearing $3bwhen the time comes for them to sell.
A convincing argument can be made that Loria and MLB officials have taken advantage of South Florida's taxpayers to line their own pockets. Le Batard made the argument that the new ownership group is doing the same thing with MLB's blessing. What's most curious is why fans would expect them to do anything different. History has shown that it produces an enormous profit, and that is the goal.
Do fans pay too little attention to the business side of professional sports? Let us know in the comments.