Determining profits and losses for baseball franchises is a speculative task. When teams say they’re losing money, we can take them at their word or ignore them. They don’t open their books, so how much money teams make or lose is subject to factors outside of publicly available knowledge — and, therefore, equally subject to a lot of potential “massaging” on the part of the teams themselves.
That state of affairs might change slightly in the near future, however. Liberty Media, owners of the Atlanta Braves — as well as a majority stake in Sirius XM and a substantial stake in Live Nation Entertainment — are planning to offer stock in their separate divisions. As a result, they’ll have to provide more information to the public on the Braves’ operations. The Braves are claiming losses over the past few years, although in a cash sense, those losses are a bit deceiving, and the team is set to make money this season after slashing payroll.
There was a time, not all that long ago, that almost all Atlanta Braves games were broadcast nationally on TBS. The cable network, owned ostensibly by the same person who owned the Braves, Ted Turner, used the Braves to get publicity for his cable network, and the Braves were able to reach a broader base of fans. In the middle of the Braves’ great run of success, Time Warner bought Turner’s broadcasting company and the Braves, and the new owners continued to put Braves games on TBS. Changes to this once symbiotic partnership, however, brought an end to TBS’s almost daily Braves telecasts and saw the team enter one of the worst television contracts of the last few decades.
The Braves-TBS relationship changed on multiple fronts in 2007. That’s when Liberty Media bought the Braves and Time Warner decided to change strategies with TBS, opting for programming with a more national reach, including a deal to broadcast MLB games on a national level. These moves were not exactly simultaneous, as TBS opted to move in a different direction before the Braves’ sale. When Time Warner was getting ready to sell the Braves, they had no local long-term television contract. Signing a television contract at that point proved to be very poor timing relative to the market.
Just a few years before the local-rights boom began, the Braves struck a deal with Fox to air around two-thirds of the club’s games between Fox Sports South and SportSouth (previously owned by Turner), with another third going to the Peachtree network, the old, over-the-air precursor to TBS — not entirely different from WGN in Chicago. The deal kept the local, TBS connection to the Braves with Peachtree, but did not provide Liberty Media with a solid future revenue stream, although that was a known consideration in the sale of the team.
The new television deal was to run 20 years, through 2027, and would pay the Braves between $10 million and $20 million per season, a paltry sum compared to the contracts to come. Despite increased revenue throughout the sport, much of it due to higher local revenues, Braves payroll flat-lined before seeing a slight uptick over the past few seasons, per Cot’s Contracts.
The recent uptick in payroll is in not incredibly surprising. All teams are receiving more national television money, and the Braves received a bit of a reprieve on their television deal back in 2013. While the Peachtree contract might have seemed beneficial at the time for airing one-third of local games, teams have moved away from over-the-air broadcasts, as the networks which supply them tend to be outbid by cable networks given the revenues that are possible in subscriber fees for cable networks.
While not all details are known, what’s clear is that Fox took over the remaining portion of the Peachtree contract, perhaps paying Peachtree and the Braves for the ability to exclusively air Braves games in the Southeast, and netting the Braves, according to Liberty CEO Gregory Maffei, $500 million in incremental revenue increases over the life of the contract. If we assume the contract runs from 2013 to 2027 with 4% annual increases, we can estimate that the Braves started seeing about $25 million in 2014 from television revenue.
Local television money makes a big difference when it comes to spending, and the Braves’ immediate uptick in payroll for 2014 looks to be in line with their increase in local television money. Unfortunately for the Braves, the 2014 season did not go as planned. At the All-Star break, the team was in a fight for first place with the Washington Nationals. By September 1, the team was seven games back but still in the wild-card hunt. The team finished 7-18 and was well back of the playoffs at season’s end. After back-to-back 90-win seasons and playoff appearances, the team lost about 200,000 fans in attendance, and Liberty Media has filed reports indicating that the team lost $47 million, although $29 million of that loss is in the books only as depreciation and amortization.
Tim Tucker recently addressed the issue of those losses in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution:
“Depreciation tax shelters are critical in the land of the bottom line,” said John Vrooman, an economics professor at Vanderbilt and an expert on sports economics. “Any good sports accountant can turn a $30 million profit into a $30 million loss with accepted accounting procedures. The revenue side of a club is fairly reliable, but the cost side is full of loopholes … all consistent with the existing tax code.”
Vrooman said the entire purchase price of a team can be amortized over 15 years. Liberty Media bought the Braves in 2007.
The team cut payroll slightly in 2015, trading away Jason Heyward, Justin Upton, and Craig Kimbrel, and attendance dropped to 2 million, the club’s lowest figure in 25 years. Atlanta’s attendance has been somewhat maligned over the years, but the team drew more than 3 million fans six times between 1992 and 2000, and was in the top four of the National League in attendance every year during that time period, per Baseball Reference. Over the last 15 years, the team has hovered around 2.5 million fans per season, but a disappointing 2014 season followed by the trades, a disappointing 2015 season, and the expectation of another poor season in 2016 is unlikely to bring fans back in what is likely their final year in Turner Field. However, the team still made money in 2015, and is likely to do so again in 2016.
Through three quarters of last season, before depreciation and amortization were accounted for, the Braves were up $9 million despite losing so many fans. It’s possible that increased television revenue was paid in 2013 instead of 2014 or certain stadium costs might have factored in to profitability and the loss on the books in 2014, and that 2015 — with more increases in national and local television money — offsets the loss of fans last season. Payroll is dropping in 2016, virtually ensuring the Braves will make money, even if they lose more fans. When compared to the rest of MLB, Braves’ spending has gone way down over the last two decades.
That number is going to shrink down even further as the team rebuilds in 2016, potentially moving toward contention for their new stadium the following year. Currently, the Braves’ Opening Day payroll sits just shy of $85 million. Unless the team takes on more money as the season progress, the club’s payroll is likely to account for right around 2% of total MLB payroll, half of what it was a decade ago.
It would be very easy to explain away the Braves’ declining payroll by putting the onus on Liberty Media’s desire for profits as well as Time Warner’s before that in preparation for selling the team. That explanation isn’t necessarily wrong, but we can’t ignore the very poor local television deal. While the amount of money coming in on national television contracts is rising and the current national deals are roughly double the previous contracts, local revenue is still the biggest driver for Major League Baseball teams. The NFL can get away with being completely tone deaf to the public due their national television contracts that encompass all games, but, despite recent comments by Yankees executive Lonn Trost, MLB teams cannot ignore their locality, needing local television deals and attendance.
The Braves’ local television deal, even with the increases, is still a bad one compared to most of the rest of the league. That said, it’s not as debilitating as it was a few years ago. Despite poor attendance, the team is still making money, and the increase in attendance with the new stadium — as well as the likelihood that the Braves will be competitive after this season — should provide the Braves with ample revenues to increase payroll to a considerably higher level. Strict profits and losses can be deceiving. The principal revenue drivers for teams are local and national television deals, attendance, and other stadium related revenue with the main variable cost to a franchise is payroll. The Braves seem to be trending up in revenue with payroll moving down. From a financial perspective, Atlanta looks to be in great shape for the future.
Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.