The Mystery of the Tampa Bay Rays: So Many Wins, So Little Money

It's not the players. It's the field.

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How did a group of investment bankers with little baseball experience buy the Tampa Bay Rays and turn the whipping boy of the American League East into one of the best and most exciting teams in the baseball? David Leonhardt asks the question of Jonah Keri, the author of a new book on how the Rays used economic principles to top the Yankees and Red Sox.
I'm more interested in another question: Why is the top team in the American League also one of the least valuable teams in baseball if its owners are supposedly economic experts? The Rays' attendance averaged a little under 22,000 in 2010, or 52% capacity. That puts them in the bottom ten in the league, below basement dwellers like Kansas City, Washington and the Florida Marlins.
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Despite playing in supposedly baseball-friendly Florida; despite winning the most competitive division in baseball twice in three years; despite more than a dozen home games against the compulsively hateable Yankees and Red Sox each year; and despite playing in the World Series in 2008, the Tampa Bay Rays have some of the worst financial numbers in the game. They rank in the bottom five in yearly revenue and current value, based on current stadium deal. Even star Evan Longoria called his fans support "embarrassing" after a meager 12,000 showed up in a potential playoff clinching game last year. "We're all confused as to why it's only 15,000 to 20,000 in the building," he said.

Why so many naked seats? The sports argument might be that the Rays succeed without flair-- with quality middle relief, timely hitting, and consistent fielding. In 2010, the team scored and allowed fewer runs at home than any stadium in the country. But I'd guess, it's not the team. It's the field.

Tropicana Field is notoriously one of the worst parks in baseball, a dark dank shell many miles away from downtown Tampa. The only non-retractable domed stadium in the league, it features a patchwork of hideous catwalks that occasionally bat down fly balls to the outfield. In the movie Field of Dreams, Kevin Costner hears the words, "If you build it, they will come." That wisdom was missing the corollary, "... but not if it looks like Tropicana."

I have no idea why the Rays owners haven't announced plans to dramatically revamp or completely rebuild their maligned stadium. But I wonder whether baseball's revenue-sharing agreement, which taxes the rich teams and redistributes to the poor, is having the unintended side-effect of discouraging team owners from expensive investments in teams and stadiums. Teams with lower yearly revenue are rewarded with a higher share of redistributed money from the richer teams. That's not a reason to try to lose, but it is a reason to be less-than-aggressive about investing in your assets when you're a small market team with limited growth prospects.

Last year, the Associated Press uncovered documents suggesting that the woeful Pittsburgh Pirates might have pursued a strategy of losing in order to maximize the team's profitability in the last three seasons. By slashing its payroll to the bone, the league-worst Pirates both controlled costs and qualified for maximum money under baseball's revenue sharing agreement. Now the Rays are different. They're owners are fielding a championship quality team in the league's toughest division, and they deserve all the credit in the world for that. But I wonder whether revenue sharing makes bad incentives both on and off the field.