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Baseball is a business, and business is good

Fans have been flocking to the new-model ballparks, as this sellout crowd did at PNC Park in Pittsburgh to watch the Pirates' home opener against the St. Louis Cardinals earlier this month.
Fans have been flocking to the new-model ballparks, as this sellout crowd did at PNC Park in Pittsburgh to watch the Pirates' home opener against the St. Louis Cardinals earlier this month.Gene J. Puskar / AP
/ Source: Forbes

Baseball games can turn quickly with one swing of the bat. Baseball's finances can change quickly too.

Three years ago, the 30 Major League Baseball (MLB) teams posted an operating loss (in the sense of earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization) of $57 million. Last season, they earned a record $496 million. Despite its ongoing steroids scandal, baseball has made a big comeback thanks to labor peace, new ballparks, tight races to qualify for the postseason and improved marketing.

In 2006, a record 76 million fans poured through the turnstiles at big league parks. The New York Yankees led the league with attendance (the fourth consecutive year the Bronx Bombers have done so) with 4.2 million, followed by the Los Angeles Dodgers (3.8 million), New York Mets (3.4 million) and St. Louis Cardinals (3.4 million). With the average ticket price of a big league game increasing 5 percent last season, to $22, gate receipts (including premium club seating) came in at $1.9 billion, 8 percent above 2005.

Cable rights fees have also been a home run for baseball. Fox's regional cable sports networks, which are owned by News Corp., now have the rights to 19 teams and shelled out $257 million in fees last season. Among those teams that run their own sports channels, the Yankees raked in the most ,with $67 million in rights fees from their YES network. Their cross-town rivals, the Mets, pulled in $47 million during the first year of their SportsNet New York channel. Other teams with ownership ties to media properties also raked in lucrative fees. The Boston Red Sox, 80 percent owner of New England Sports Network, for example, pulled in $21 million in rights fees. The Chicago Cubs, owned by Tribune, took home $20 million from its parent's local broadcaster, WGN, as well as $20 million from Comcast SportsNet, which Tribune also owns a piece of.

By our count, nine teams have equity stakes in regional sports networks, with more likely to follow. John A. Moag, chief executive of the sports banking firm Moag & Co., points out that the a typical such network can generate a rich cash flow margin (earnings before interest, taxes and depreciation as a percent of revenue) of 40 percent net of the fair market value of rights fees paid to the team that owns the network.

With business humming at ballparks and on television, MLB's revenues totaled $5.1 billion last season, 9 percent more than 2005. The combination of revenue growth and investments in new, revenue-rich ballparks (the St. Louis Cardinals moved into their new home last season, while the Mets, Yankees, Minnesota Twins and Washington Nationals should all be in new stadiums by 2010) fueled a 15 percent increase in team values, to an average of $431 million.

Three years ago, MLB, which owned the Montreal Expos, couldn't find a buyer for the team. Two years after the team moved to Washington, D.C., the Nationals, as the team is now known, were bought for $450 million by Theodore Lerner and his family. Buyers have been lining up to bid for the Cubs (the team will be put on the block after the pending sale of Tribune is finalized), who haven't won the World Series in a century and have not even played in one in three generations. Look for the buyer to be a Chicagoan that will pay around $600 million, or perhaps as much as $900 million if Tribune's interest in WGN and Comcast SportsNet are also part of the deal, surpassing the then-record $700 million John Henry's group paid for the Red Sox and 80 percent of NESN five years ago.

How quickly the game has changed.