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Did Tigers Fans 'Earn' Prince Fielder?

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Yesterday, Tigers owner Mike Ilitch announced that his team had signed Prince FIelder to a 9 year, 214 million dollar contract—for those wondering this means Fielder, if paid in $1 bills, is going to receive about 471,790 lbs of money, or about 1716 Prince Fielder's worth of money. Diversions aside, when Fielder's deal was announced there were heaps of praise served to Ilitch and, in some cases, Detroit fans:

fans show up in droves despite terrible economy and owner rewards them by signing a star. That's how it's supposed to work.

-John Perrotto via Twitter

First, let's figure out if the claim that Tigers fans supported the team to an unusual extent is credible:

Year % Attendance Rank
2006 79.9 10
2007 93.8 4
2008 98.6 3
2009 79 11
2010 75.7 12
2011 79 10


Detroit went to the World Series in 2006, the last time they had made the playoffs before 2011. In that context, my cocked-head guess is that Detroit is supported almost exactly at the level we ought to expect. Detroit is something like the 12th largest metro area in the US and, by these rankings for radio market size, about the 11th largest market. Obviously, all of the markets ahead of Detroit have (at least) one baseball team, so it follows that the Tigers, if they don't absolutely poison the well, ought to be about the eleventh best supported team in an average year.

That term 'average year' probably isn't a particularly useful one, and we could anecdotally point out how bad the Detroit economy is, but there's not much of an argument here. The stronger argument would be if Detroit pulled a St. Louis, which consistently ranks much higher by attendance percentage than it does by market size.

Anyway, point being: Tigers' fans don't appear to have done anything particularly inspirational to push Illitch to this move, as Perrotto asserts with his imagined virtuous cycle. Tigers fans didn't show up at any greater rate than they had the previous few years, and, just as expected, fan interest had waned as the Tigers became farther removed from the playoffs. If someone wants to do a more complex analysis (and one is certainly justified), I'm happy to be proven wrong.

The question that's more interesting to me is if what Perrotto is asserting about "the way it should be" is actually, well, the way it should be. Should fans show up in droves with the hope of being 'rewarded' by an owner opening the coffers? A rudimentary analysis rooted in American capitalism would indicate no. No one expects to go to a poor performing restaurant and spend a lot of cash with the expectation that the restaurant will approve in quality. Unquestionably, there are instances where we choose to patronize a place in the hopes that it will grow and, perhaps, marginally improve (think local coffee shop), but the basic consumer relationship is one that's founded on being sold a quality product by the business, as opposed to motivating a business to sell a quality product by patronizing it.

Perrotto is really just parroting a sunnier version of the logic that many CleCommers sense in Dolan's reticence to spend wildly—a lot of the anger towards Cleveland ownership and management, in my estimation, is based in a refusal to be labeled a 'bad' fan because of an unwillingness to spend a week's wages on a night at the park supporting a lousy team. When this relationship between payroll and attendance is spelled out by Shapiro or Antonetti, it feels, to many, like a thinly veiled guilt trip.

The super-wealthy simply can't beseech the non-super-wealthy to spend more in order to improve a sports team. They need to beseech the non-super-wealthy to spend more because spending more feels awesome. That could mean winning or free chalupas, it doesn't matter, but awesomeness is the proper source of motivation in the context of our economy. The point that owners must put the horse (a good team) before the cart (the bandwagon of fans) by spending lavishly and assuming considerable risk is cogently supported by Malcolm Gladwell's argument regarding NBA ownership.

The inherent volatility in a sports team's 'success' makes owning a team something less than a shrewd business move. Especially in a relatively unregulated sport like baseball, team ownership ought to be a sidelight for very rich people who enjoy betting on their horse with some vague notion that, if things work out, they might get a cart from the deal. Ilitch and Mark Cuban are the obvious examples in the major sports of owners treating their team like the diversionary amusement of a moneypit that it is.

If you scratch the surface, though, you see that Ilitch and Cuban are not just good owners, but they're also in good situations. Both are in large markets, where both fan support and cable deals help keep the lights on. Cuban is in a sport that limits his spending on players, meaning a lot of the money he spends flashily (for fancy benches, for instance) likely doesn't approach the costs that acquiring players in an unregulated market would. Ilitch is likely deficit spending from his own bank account, but he also has much greater assurances of future profits because of Detroit's cable market and, of course, from his own immense wealth (that's probably more 'good owner' than 'good situation'). In short, he's in no real danger of bankrupting himself or the team because of a few factors, including the Tigers' ecosystem.

On the other hand, many owners would, if they were to act like Ilitch, run a risk of bankrupting themselves and the team. Firstly, as Jay astutely pointed out over in the long Fielder thread, spending money is no guarantee of success and, thus, no guarantee of making any money back. In fact, spending money is pretty poorly correlated to success in many cases, like Detroit's. Secondly, many owners are simply not as wildly wealthy as Ilitch is, and thus don't have the guaranteed future income streams to back up their own bets.

That someone like Dolan doesn't play Ilitch's game isn't surprising—in order to become wildly, exorbitantly, astoundingly rich one has to generally have a pretty decent sense of when you're throwing money away and an aversion to that sensation. Further, there's probably a great deal of pressure on you to not just waste your riches but, instead, either give them to causes that 'matter' or, more likely, to a set of heirs who've assumed a future lifestyle is theirs by birthright.

The real question then, is where do we find more pseudo-crazy mega-rich people? And how do we convince one of them to buy the Indians? Or, alternately, we return to the same question as always: how do we get away from a system that allows teams' coincidental circumstances to dictate so much of the player acquisition market?