Yesterday I ran two posts about potential unrest in the Land of the Lords of the Realm. You can read them here and here. Upshot: even billionaire playboys are not immune to the current economic downturn, and in fact they are particularly vulnerable if they either (a) depend on real estate for their fortune or cash flow; or (b) need cash right now. Upshot of the upshot: it seems inescapable to me that franchise values are or should be falling, and that absent artificial prop-jobs like the Moorad-Moores deal, owners are going to take baths on the resale of their franchises for the foreseeable future. That, in turn, will likely have some depressing effects on salaries and other spending by baseball teams.
In response to the second piece, your friend and mine, Jason from IIATMS, had this to say:
Last I checked, there were many mega-rich left standing, even with the market, Madoff, TARP, AIG, etc.
There will always be someone willing to belly up to the bar for a chance at owning a baseball team. Never underestimate the power of ego when combined with mad riches.
I think Jason is generally right about that, but the key is not whether there are willing buyers out there, it’s the price at which these ego-driven buyers will ultimately offer. My very good friend Ethan Stock — whose mostly technology but occasionally political blog can be found here and whose very cool business can be found here — feels the same way. Except, unlike me, he’s smart enough to flesh out that observation in detail, and he has forwarded that fleshing out to me. I now offer it as a guest post. Take it away Ethan:
I read Jason from IIATMS’ first comment and, with all due respect, here’s Jason, the shorter version: “Prices can’t fall here, because this is a really nice neighborhood”.
‘Here’ being, say, San Francisco. Or Manhattan. Or Miami Beach.
Sure, there are a lot of mega-rich left standing. But they are the smarter ones, and they are smarting, and while they may jump at the chance to own a baseball franchise, it is extremely likely that they will not jump quite so high. Craig is exactly right in the comments that Cuban was saved by Selig, and is no doubt counting his lucky stars. If Cuban has invested his money wisely in the meantime, my prediction is that he will be a baseball owner by 2015 at ½ the price at which he intended to buy the Cubs.
So much of the “mad riches” out there — the sorts of riches the ego-driven types who tend to like owning baseball teams tend to have — was built on the back of leverage, leverage, leverage. All of which is collapsing like ninepins. Check out the factors that have been leveraging up the value of major-league franchises (I include the NFL in this, and slightly the NBA) and which are now leveraging those same values down:
1) The aforementioned real estate factor. A stadium/team is often an explicit license to develop around – entertainment, retail, office buildings, apartments and condos. The model invented by the Rangers in the early 90s with the Ballpark at Arlington. And nothing has been hotter than real estate. Brrrr. Feel the chill?
2) The oft-by-Shyster mentioned stupid-government-giveaways factor. Since the late 80s, buying a team has been a near-guarantee that some municipality will gift you with concessions worth about $300 million. Think that didn’t add $300 million to the value of a team? Of course it did. Now that just about every municipality has either completed such giveaways — and with municipal bankruptcies looming and the mob sharpening its pitchforks — the days in which cities magically grant owners increased franchise value are as long gone as a hanging curve to Ted Williams.
3) Media advertising has been in a perfect bubble – basically all of the old (newspapers, local TV) plus all of the new (satellite, Internet, broadcast TV, naming rights, etc.) existed simultaneously over the Bush era, despite being on crossing escalators; and it all paid up for sports content because every outlet was fighting alternately for survival or for growth. The whole sectors is now blowing up. Not only is total advertising spend collapsing, the number of media outlets is, too. Think that won’t affect rights bidding and therefore franchise values? Think again.
4) “Rich guy growth” – the fans. There has been unprecedented-since-the-Gilded Era growth in the top quintile takings of salary and investment income, and the people who get that kind of income like baseball. A good percentage of these folks spent kilobucks on fancy box seats and luxury boxes; and all those same guys, not incidentally, are the potential Patek Philippe-wearing walking wallets that the media/advertising complex has been overpaying sports owners to reach. The whole demographic is imploding faster than you can say “the bear market ate Bear Stearns”.
5) “Wannabe rich guy growth” – more fans. There’s a concept called MEW – mortgage equity withdrawal – that has been skyrocketing and is now plummeting. It’s basically the home-as-ATM factor. Popular wisdom has it that a lot of that dough got spent on hot tubs, vacations, SUVs, plasma TVs, and so forth. Do you really think that Joe Bosox didn’t drop any of that dough on his favorite team, paying up for the leavings after the box-seat set had spent their fill? From seat licenses to over-priced jerseys and increasingly ephemeral caps to consuming advertising on that MEW plasma to justify the media bubble, that guy has been doing his share. And now he’s done.
6) “Super rich guy growth” – potential owners. Again, not since the Gilded Age have so many plutocrats been newly minted or re-struck at a higher value. Guys like Stephen Schwarzman were bandied about as potential Cubs buyers. Who the ####? He was nobody 10 years ago and he’ll be nobody 10 years from now. In the meantime he and a hundred other guys like him have been throwing sharp platinum elbows to differentiate themselves from every other arriviste on the Forbes billionaire list. Half of them will be gone this year, another quarter next year, and the number of the guys who can belly up to the bar outside of 2-for-1 happy hour and order a franchise, on the rocks or straight up, will plummet.
7) Creative DCF (discounted cash flow) financing – is no more. From 2004 – 2007 we have seen the apotheosis of DCF – projecting ad infinitum, without risk, the present value of future cashflow to justify the most outlandish purchases at the most inflated prices – all backed by the cupidity of bankers trying to make an extra buck (so they could buy season box seats, of course). Image: Stuyvesant Place in NYC, one of the biggest commercial real estate transactions of all time, sold by Met Life at the top of the commercial real estate bubble, was cashflow negative from the instant the deal closed; and will end up in bankruptcy. Image: Sam Zell’s near-legendary purchase of Tribune happened about the same time, doomed to bankruptcy within 12 months. Cuban’s purchase of the Cubs would have been a third snapshot in this sad album, but oh-so-luckily got zorched by Selig. With trillions of “toxic assets” (translation – the retail version of the wholesale insanity I’ve just described) weighing down the rusty holds of the leaking vessels of American banking, do we really believe that similar creative, nay, gullible financing will be available to *anyone* looking to pay an inflated price for a franchise in the future?
Seven simple pieces of a single fact. Artificial leverage is imploding, and most franchises are “worth” perhaps a quarter of the sticker price they might have brought in 2006.
I’m not sure what to make of Ethan’s estimate of franchise values going down 75% — seems high to me on some gut level — but Ethan is about the smartest guy I’ve ever met. He was talking about the housing bubble bursting before most of us were even aware of the bubble to begin with, and I think he’s dead on with respect to the overall dynamics at play with franchise values as well.
What would the Padres go for on the open market today? What would the A’s bring if Wolff had to liquidate tomorrow? Not every team comes complete with a license to print broadcasting and merchandising bucks like the Yankees and Red Sox do, and eventually the current owners — or their heirs — are going to be selling. People thought the Cubs would bring a billion bucks in a heartbeat, and while they’re still pretty valuable, the billion is not happening. It’s very likely that the insane appreciation franchises have seen over the past 10-15 years is over.
Yes, someone will probably always be around to buy a baseball team, but if they do, it will be at a nice discount and with greatly diminished expectations that they themselves might flip the asset one day. That will cause year-to-year cashflow to assume a much greater importance, which will in turn create greater pressure to keep salaries low and to market everything that isn’t nailed down. Such a thing is likely to change baseball, in some ways for the worse (i.e. I can see the next CBA negotiation getting really nasty) and in some ways for the better (since winning = attendance, it may encourage owners to take a much greater interest in fielding a winning team).
How much change? I don’t know. But changes will come.