For the Cubs, the Benefit of Winning Would Justify the Cost
It’s a question we ask ourselves each day, perhaps several times a day: does the end justify the means?
If the answer is yes, we proceed. But the further the pat to the end and the greater the cost of the means, the harder it is to make a definitive choice. For instance, I can easily justify eating that breaded tenderloin for lunch if I know I’m going to bust my butt in the gym later. However, raising $15,000 to self-publish a Cubs-themed children’s book that might never see the light of day is not a decision I’ll make lightly.
The Cubs don’t have much of an issue with doling out $5 million here or there for a single season from a utility player or a fill-in piece for the rotation; that kind of money and time don’t have long-term impact on the franchise. Deciding whether or not to hand out $25-30 million/year for the better part of a decade, though, that’s a different story.
We’ve already written about the topic here on Cubs Insider. In fact, Tommy Cook, Mike Rankin, and Ryan Davis have all tackled the concept of value when it comes to free agency, specifically when it comes to Jon Lester and/or other big-time players.
Those guys all did a great job of articulating their points, which can mainly be be boiled down to the concept that the current economic structure of baseball dictates that a team must “overpay” for an ace and that a guy is worth what a team is willing to pay. Sorry if that’s an oversimplification, guys.
It makes sense that a guy who’s already in, or just past, his prime is never going to give you full value in the tailing years of a massive contract. But is it possible that there’s more to than simply the empirical relation of the stats he puts up relative to the paycheck he pulls down?
Let’s use the example of my children’s book, which is actually a real thing. Well, it’s a concept of a real thing anyway. Say I fund it, whether on my own or through a Kickstarter project, and actually get the thing published and it really takes off. It’s being sold in bookstores and I have a booth at the Cubs Convention to sell signed copies and I’m rolling like even more of a boss than I am from this blog, which is basically an ATM (or the exact opposite, either way).
In such a case, the decision to invest a lot of money (relatively speaking) carried a great deal of risk to me, but the end result, while far from guaranteed, would have been well worth it.
Another aspect to consider is the intrinsic value of creating something and of following through with a dream. I brew and keg my own beer and I can tell you that there’s just something about being able to go out to my garage and pull a draft from one of four taps. The savings over retail is nice too, but the pride I get from having my own craft beer provides me with a great deal of satisfaction, the value of which can’t really be measured in currency.
Likewise, having a book that I wrote actually published and available to the general public would surely provide significant joy to me. That’s certainly the case with this blog, though the cost to me is somewhat nominal at this point.
You’re probably wondering at this point whether I’m actually going to get back around to the Cubs, aren’t you? Okay, I’ll tear myself away from my favorite subject — me, of course — and get back to the one you came here to read about.
For the Cubs, investing $150 million or so for Jon Lester is not unlike me ponying up to publish a book. The risk is great, but the potential reward could easily make the gamble worth it in the end. If Lester is able to anchor a team that finally wins a World Series title, it won’t matter that the Cubs are paying $25 million AAV for guy who’s well past his prime as the deal wears on.
That’s because the value, both actual and perceived, will be so great a to outweigh the cost to the team. Even if they don’t win a title, Lester’s impact on ticket sales alone might be enough to justify the hefty contract. The idea that the Cubs always fill Wrigley Field is as sad and tired a narrative as exists; almost as sad as seeing more gulls than gals in the bleachers last year.
It’s impossible to ascribe increased attendance to any one player, but let’s just try to make some numbers work anyway. The Cubs drew only 32,742 fans per game in 2014, or 8,000 fewer than the high-water mark of 40,743 in 2003; that’s about 650,000 fewer attendees over the course of the season, at an average cost of about $45.
That’s a big loss in terms of the gate, and we’re not even considering all the extra revenue from parking, beer, food, beer, shirseys, and beer.
For the sake of ease, I’m going to focus only on ticket sales, knowing that this exercise is fraught with speculation. But let’s say Jon Lester is worth an increase in 100,000 fans in 2015; that’s an extra $4.5 million in revenue to the Cubs, which mitigates nearly 20% of the ace’s big contract.
That jump in attendance is actually a pretty conservative estimate too, as a competitive Cubs team would surely generate a return to the days of 3 million-plus fans passing through the turnstiles. If Wrigley Field housed a team that was fighting for the playoffs, it’s conceivable that the Cubs would see a revenue bump of at least $29 million (650,000 fans x $45 average ticket).
And that’s not even considering the inevitable increase in that average cost. Again, it’s both impossible and irresponsible to ascribe all of that value to a single player, but doing so certainly makes it easier to justify Lester’s potential contract. After all, ceteris paribus, a sold-out Wrigley Field with Jon Lester is the same as an 80%-to-capacity Wrigley with a replacement-level starter.
But this thing is about more than money, isn’t it? Just think about how it would feel for you, as a fan, to finally experience a winner on the North Side. Now multiply that by several million and extrapolate it across the country. Now add in the national media coverage, all the free publicity. That value is something that money can’t buy.
At the same time, that kind of hype and publicity would generate a windfall for the Cubs unlike any we’ve ever seen in professional sports. The Kansas City Royals will experience a miniature version of this swell in revenue as a result of their Cinderlla run in 2014, but they don’t have nearly the reach nor the cachet the Cubs would be able to boast.
And that’s just the tickets. Can you imagine how much Tom Ricketts would be able to command in terms of sponsorships, ads, and a nascent television network?
I’ve been focusing only on Jon Lester here, but I think it’s clear that it’ll take more than just one player to put the Cubs over the top in terms of having a team that can fulfill the goals they’ve set forth. I think it’s also clear that the benefit of winning is indeed worth the cost, at least according to my rudimentary examples.
In fact, I believe the potentially steep cost of fielding a competitive team would eventually be dwarfed by the resultant tidal wave of revenue that would wash over the Cubs as a result. At the same time, we’ve seen what happens when you build a team to create a wave that never really breaks correctly.
To that end, the Cubs aren’t trying to get one single wave. Rather, they’re attempting to generate a series of them in order to remain competitive year after year. So while the benefit should outweigh the cost, you’re not going to see the front office get reckless simply because they feel that they’ll make it all up on the back end.
That’s why I’m glad it’s not me running the show in Chicago; I’m far too willing to spend other people’s money. But you’ve got to spend it to make it, right? I don’t think there’s any doubt that the Cubs can afford the players it takes to complete this team, but I also know that they’re going to very judicious when it comes to increasing payroll.
Now, who wants to donate to my book fund?