Major league baseball teams closely guard their financial information. They have no problem talking about how much money players make, but they prefer to be more circumspect when disclosing the revenue teams take in or the scale of the profits owners make after those players have been paid and expenses accounted for. Because baseball’s ownership is a fairly insular group composed mostly of individuals and privately held businesses– and because there relatively few franchise sales to use as gauge–teams have been largely successful in preventing their financial information from going public. The Atlanta Braves present an exception.
Liberty Media, perhaps best known for its subsidiary SiriusXM Satellite Radio, purchased the Braves in 2007 for $400 million. Two years ago, they began offering stock in their separate divisions, which means the public can buy shares in the Braves as well as the real estate holdings around the stadium. It also means that, as a publicly traded company, the public is entitled to more information regarding the team’s finances than is typical. As I wrote in 2016, the club disclosed an $18 million loss in 2014 before depreciation and amortization. They were on the plus side in 2015 by about three million dollars before recording losses of about $20 million in 2016. During those three seasons, the team averaged 90 losses, with an average annual attendance of 2.1 million fans and a payroll just over $116 million per season. The financial losses in 2016 were largely attributable to a huge international signing class, most of the players from which were later declared free agents after MLB’s investigation into Atlanta’s signing methods.
But focusing exclusively on a team’s year-by-year profits obscures the financial reality of owning a baseball team because it doesn’t address the most profitable aspect of team ownership: the value of the franchise. Based on the calculations above, the Braves lost about $45 million from 2014 through the end of 2016. But Liberty Media CEO Greg Maffei has admitted profits weren’t always the main consideration for the Braves, indicating that “historically, the measurement was we didn’t lose money.” Maffei’s remarks are consistent with statements from another team owner, Rogers Communications, which owns the Toronto Blue Jays, though the Blue Jays’ financials are harder to trace because Rogers owns a whole host of assets along with the baseball team. Per Forbes:
The media giant’s CFO, Tony Staffieri, said at a conference that Rogers wants to “surface value” from the Blue Jays, which he said is a “very valuable asset for us that we don’t get full credit for.”
For the Blue Jays, “surfacing value” would likely come in the form of realizing the profits from selling the team, as Rogers might not be getting “credit” if the team isn’t reaping huge profits. Then there’s the matter of Rogers also broadcasting Blue Jays games, which might further cloud the revenues from the baseball team. (The Braves used to benefit from some of that same confusion back when Ted Turner owned the club and TBS showed Braves games, but the financial model has shifted, and the Braves now have one of the worst local television contracts in baseball.) It is clear the calculus of franchise ownership is more complicated than mere gate sales.
For quite some time, the Braves’ goal was simply not to lose money, something Liberty Media could afford to do because the value of the franchise kept rising. While the Braves seem to have lost $45 million in operating revenue from 2014 to the start of 2017, Forbes estimated the club has gained $770 million in value, from $730 million in 2014 to $1.5 billion before the start of the 2017 season. Even if there are reasons to be skeptical of the precision of Forbes’ numbers given how closed off baseball’s books are, we can look to franchise sales over the past 30 years and see that teams have generally enjoyed an average annual gain (even after accounting for inflation) of 8%. Based on Forbes’ 2018 estimate of the Braves’ franchise value of $1.625 billion (and accounting for the team’s $2.5 billion market cap, which includes the real estate around the new stadium), the team has seen an annual increase in value of 11-16% after inflation.
The 2017 season saw the Braves open a new ballpark and increase their attendance by half a million people (to 2.5 million). The club also saw profits of $49 million despite no significant changes in spending. This past season, the Braves had a payroll of about $130 million and again drew 2.5 million fans en route to making the playoffs. The team’s profits doubled as a result, increasing by $50 million, which coincidentally is the amount teams received for their portion of the MLBAM sale to Disney. These types of profits might have changed the attitude of Braves ownership, who some had previously thought might be preparing the club for sale. This speculation was in sync with Liberty Media’s own business philosophy as Maffei has indicated: “Liberty has been a company that has tended to move through assets.”
With the increased profits, it looks less likely Liberty will sell in the immediate future. From Tim Tucker’s piece in the AJC:
“Look, I think there is a lot of good stuff that is going to go on at the Braves that we’d like to remain involved with for a period,” Liberty Media CEO Greg Maffei said. “That includes for the buildout of The Battery, all of the development around there. That includes, frankly, the fact we are well set up for on-field performance with very attractive contracts.
“We are making money now at the Braves at a pretty serious clip, where historically the measurement was we didn’t lose money,” Maffei said. “That’s only going to get better as you approach the time when we renew in 2027 on our (regional sports network) deal. So all of those (factors) set up well to suggest – not that we’re going to hold (the Braves) 10 or nine more years – that there are a lot of positive things happening. … I don’t think we’re in the exit mode today.”
It is useful to put Atlanta in a broader context. While the Braves moving into a new ballpark opens up new revenue streams, most teams have relatively new ballparks. The 2.5 million fans the Braves have drawn in attendance in each of the past two season is good, but the team also ranked outside the top 10 this past season. Add in one of the worst local television contracts in the game and a $130 million payroll, and the Braves had $100 million in profits last season. If a team with close to average ticket prices and attendance took in $100 million in profits with their payroll, it isn’t far-fetched to think that there are teams with significantly higher payrolls but better attendance and television deals also making a tidy profit as well.
We can act as if team owners are just typical business people trying to turn a profit, and of course some resources across the league do vary. But if the Braves’ finances are any indication, the profits some (and perhaps many) owners have seen the past few years could represent a significant change from even a decade ago. The business of baseball is booming, and the new $5.1 billion deal with FOX is an indication that the business is not slowing down. Last year’s chilly winter for free agents caused no growth in payrolls despite increased revenues. It’s fair for players to be concerned about their declining share of revenues. When middle-of-the-road franchises go from breaking even to turning big profits on top of big gains in franchise valuations, it’s not too hard to imagine the piles of cash underneath the owners of the bigger-market clubs.
Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.