Brewers situation amounts to a mess

The Brewers' recent history reeks of poor baseball, financial disrepair, broken promises and gullible fans.

Originally Published: December 5, 2003
By Rob Neyer | ESPN.com

Being a short history of five weeks in the recent life of the Milwaukee Brewers ...

  • A month ago, the Brewers' board of directors recommended a 25-percent budget cut for 2004, which would drop the club's payroll to approximately $30 million. Team president Ulice Payne made the mistake of admitting that he had doubts about the franchise's ability to turn things around.

  • A few days later, it became clear that Payne, who was hired in September 2002, would soon be un-hired.

    At the same time, the Brewers revealed that 1) the franchise's current owners had invested an additional $44 million over the last five or six years, and 2) the franchise owes $110 million to Citibank and spends $8 million on debt service (i.e. interest payments) alone.

  • What with the budgets cuts, the debt, and Payne's imminent ouster, a lot of people in Milwaukee -- including a goodly number of newspaper writers and politicians -- began calling for heads.

    Wisconsin Assembly Speaker John Gard told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel,

    The taxpayers of this state have made a multimillion-dollar investment in this baseball team and taken the club's decisions on faith. This week's revelations of a 'fire sale' at the ballclub have shaken this faith, and it is time for us to actually be given a look at the books and review how the team is managing its finances.

    Ex-Governor (and now Secretary of Health and Human Services) Tommy Thompson weighed in, too ...

    The Brewers made it clear that if we build a modern, state-of-the-art stadium, it would provide them with the resources to field a winning baseball team. They promised to go out and get the star players that would allow them to compete for a World Series. The taxpayers stepped up, built the stadium and kept Wisconsin a major-league state. Yet the Brewers have not upgraded the quality of their team, and now they are apparently cutting their payroll further. The Brewers need to put an end to the games. They need to invest in a winning team.

    Pretty strong stuff, and that was just the beginning. Arguing that the Brewers had reneged on their part of the deal, Wisconsin politicians called for an independent audit of the team's books.

  • Payne and a number of other top Brewers executives are fired (but don't feel sorry for Payne, who reportedly received between $2.4 million and $2.7 million in a buyout package).

  • The Journal Sentinel has obtained various reports of the Brewers' finances, and it's not a pretty picture. Even though the Brewers are reaping huge amounts of money from revenue sharing ($15 million last season alone), they're deeply in debt.

  • Just this week, the Brewers agreed to open their financial books. Of course, one might wonder if a bunch of millionaires (the Seligs and their friends) sharing their books with another bunch of millionaires ("three prominent Milwaukee business executives") will necessarily lead to fact-finding (or, more to the point, fact-sharing). But as Doug Pappas notes, we're not going to find out much we don't already know. The Brewers are in trouble, and they've been in trouble for a long time.

    When the good people of Milwaukee signed up for Bud's Big Ballpark, they should have expected one thing, and one thing only: that Major League Baseball would remain in their city for at least a few more years. Yes, it was duplicitous for the Brewers to suggest that publicly-financed ballpark would allow them to compete financially with the Astros and the Cubs and the Cardinals, because ownership must have known that just wasn't going to happen. But it was also self-delusional for the fans, writers, and politicians to believe the Brewers.

    I heard an awful woman on the radio last night, lying about something, and then saying immediately afterward, "You can make the numbers say whatever you want."

    Well, yes. You make them say whatever you want, but you can't make us believe whatever you want. Only we can do that.

    Considering the Brewers' debt and their projected revenue from local broadcasting rights and ticket sales, the numbers just don't work. They didn't add up three years ago, and they don't add up now. The Brewers get a big chunk of the revenue-sharing money -- gee, funny how that worked out -- but that's not enough to make more than a small dent in their debt.

    Simply put, Milwaukee is a lousy place for a Major League Baseball team. According to the 2000 U.S. census, the Milwaukee-Racine metropolitan area ranks 27th in the country, last in the major leagues, behind Portland-Salem and Sacramento-Yolo, and not far ahead of Norfolk-Virginia Beach-Newport News and San Antonio.

    Now, is anybody seriously talking about putting a team in Norfolk or San Antonio? Of course not. But if you had a team and you had to put it in Norfolk or San Antonio or Milwaukee, which would you choose last?

    Right. Milwaukee. Lovely city in the summertime, but the Upper Rust Belt isn't exactly one of the A-1 growth areas in our new century. Within a decade, it's likely that Milwaukee-Racine won't rank among the top 30 metropolitan areas, and within two decades not among the top 35.

    All of this was obvious five years ago, when Selig and his cronies rammed the ballpark through. And if anybody but Selig owned the Brewers, there's at least a decent chance the Brewers would already be gone.

    Is all hope lost? The funny thing about all this is that there is hope for the Brewers. No, they're never going to spend anywhere close to half what the Yankees spend. But since when is that a precondition for winning? As Pappas recently pointed out, three of the franchises earmarked by Selig for extinction, just two years ago, were among the eight postseason teams in 2003.

    Are the Brewers on the cusp of winning a division title? Not with a $30 million payroll, they're not. But the Brewers do have a decent farm system, thanks largely to their two outstanding prospects, second baseman Rickie Weeks and first baseman Prince Fielder (and shortstop J.J. Hardy's got a bright future, too).

    But the Brewers need money, and there aren't any obvious sources. Some have called for Selig and his co-owners to sell the franchise, and that's probably the best thing that could happen. Why? Because while Selig is probably willing to kick in more cash to preserve his legacy, it seems that his co-owners have had quite enough, thank you.

    But a new ownership group, delirious with the thrill of owning a Major League Baseball team, might be willing to "invest in the future." Also, new ownership would qualify for $8 million per season in egregious tax breaks, which would help (the Brewers, though not the taxpayers) some.

    Summing up ... Yes, the Brewers lied to everybody. But it's really not so different from all those corporations that ask for free land on which to build factories, and then vacate the premises for greener pastures a few years later. At some point, the journalists and the politicians and the people need to take some responsibility for being so blasted gullible.

    Senior writer Rob Neyer writes three columns per week during baseball's offseason. Next spring, Fireside will publish Rob's next book, "The Neyer/James Guide to Pitchers" (co-authored with Bill James); for more information, visit Rob's Web site. Also, click here to send a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.

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