For years, Nats fans waged a great debate on whether the team should have spiked its payroll to coincide with the opening of Nats Park, even if it didn’t produce a winner, or whether their decision to build ever-so-slowly was a wiser choice. Tom Boswell tackled the issue several times, including in this column during the summer of ‘08.
Now, the worse-case scenario, in the form of a hurricane of injuries to a fragile, low-budget team, has arrived just as a new stadium, built at public expense, is opened. Great park plus cheap team minus bad luck equals rotten karma....
For two years, people like me have nagged the Nats to waste perhaps $10 million a season in extra just-to-please-the-fans payroll. Nobody here waited 33 years for Senators III. Now maybe the Nats can grasp why it might have been smart to build a bonfire of cash on a winter day, call a news conference and set it ablaze. Sign somebody, anybody. Call it an investment in goodwill, PR to placate the impatient, or plausible deniability if a disaster season hits as you open a new park. Or just call it common sense.....
Why cut it so close? Just as revenue is exploding, almost doubling from RFK levels, how can a franchise run the risk of alienating its fans or defusing its new-park buzz? When cash finally is gushing in, why run any risk of looking penny-wise?
But the team made the choices it made, and the losses piled up in the early days of Nats Park, and only now are fans genuinely excited about the Major League product.
Which is why this exchange, featuring Stan Kasten on MLB Network talking about the Marlins’s recent spending spree, was so odd.
“Is this the way you should build it?” Kasten was asked. “You go big, you increase payroll like this when you’ve got a new stadium?”
“I think that IS the way to go,” Kasten said. “We’ve seen great recent examples. Philadelphia, loading up, moving into a new ballpark. Minnesota, loading up, moving into a new ballpark. Because when you get your season-ticket base up high...the average life of a season-ticket holder is between three and four years.
“So it’s not just a one-year return, and it’s a heck of a lot easier to manage your finances with a slow easing off of the season-ticket base than to try to build it up slowly. So with their influx of money, going for all of it, they’ll be sold out every night next year possibly, and could pay for the investment that they’re making....
“And two other things. Let’s remember they started from an extremely low salary base, under $50 million. So even after all of this they may just mind up at 90, 100, 110. They’re not gonna be at 150 or 200, so they’re gonna be managing this well. And also, they’re one of those stadiums, in the last couple years when the sponsorship market cratered, they still don’t have a naming-rights deal. If they blow it out now, this may take them over the top and get a big one. That’s also another reason to be going all out.”
Seems convincing. That’s just not the strategy his ex team followed.