I don’t talk about it directly much because honestly there isn’t much point in doing so but the always present cloud around all Pirate related conversations always seems to be finances. A large segment of the fan base seems to think Bob Nutting is a Scrooge McDuck like character swimming around in his massive vault of gold coins. They would like to see the team sold to some benevolent billionaire willing to sink his money into the team and accept a loss year after year. I’d love that too but I’m realistic enough to know such a person does not exist.
I’m not naive enough to believe the Pirates are doing all they can from a financial stand point but I also think it is rather comical how some paint this ownership as not wanting to win. They suggest Nutting consistently takes money out of the franchise for his own personal gain despite all evidence (limited as it may be) pointing counter to this.
So what is going on here? Why don’t the Pirates spend more? We may never know the real answer but I have my own thoughts on this subject and thought I’d put them out there. Basically it comes down to 5 reasons and I’ll lay them out below in no particular order.
1. Ownership – Ah yes the evil villain in our story siphoning cash out of the organization for his own personal gain. That is how Pittsburgh paints him but I don’t buy this story. The more likely explanation is that Bob Nutting is simply put a businessman. Not only is he a businessman but he is a risk averse one. My opinion is Nutting sets a budget so that the team is almost certain not to lose money in a given year. Basically I think the team builds their budget around essentially a worst case scenario from a revenue perspective. If things go well they have shown a willingness in the past to add payroll in season (they added more at the 2015 deadline than any team in baseball). This obviously isn’t what you want a sports owner to be but it is far from the image a large segment of the fan base likes to paint.
2. Debt – It may be boring but we know for a fact the Pirates had a seriously debt problem just a few decades ago. Remember the Aramis Ramirez trade? While the situation has undoubtedly improved over that time it is reasonable to assume the club still carries a significant portion of debt that they are working to pay down to a more reasonable level. There is no real evidence to support this idea though it seems reasonably likely to me.
3. Television Deal – The Pirates are never going to get a deal comparable to the large market but poor timing meant they missed the height of the boom leaving them with a lesser deal than even similar sized markets. A team’s television deal is a huge part of their revenue and lagging here is obviously going to limit expenditures. If you are looking for someone to blame here, Frank Coonley would likely be your man as he negotiated the last deal and a case could be made that he should of seen the boon coming.
4. The City of Pittsburgh – People are not going to like to hear this but Pittsburgh isn’t a baseball town and due to that attendance is limited. Some would be quick to point out the surge the Pirates received in attendance when they were winning but those people fail to look at the actual numbers. The Pirates peaked at 2.4 million whereas other small markets with good teams, such as the 2008 Brewers, cross 3 million. That is a huge 20% difference which again has a big effect on revenue streams and therefore expenditure.
5. Major League Baseball – The single biggest reason the Pirates finances are always discussed is because that is the way the league is set up. Big market teams have a built in advantage and small market teams like the Pirates are always going to be stuck looking for a small window in which they can compete.
The above 5 reasons make the Pirates financial situation frustrating and that is why it is always forefront in any discussion. The ownership is certainly part of it and needs discussed but a large section of Pirates fans tend to ignore the other issues I outlined above which is a disservice to the conversation and is why I tend to avoid mentioning the topic at all.
When you find yourself thinking about the Pirates financial situation the easy thing is to default to the owner and while that is indeed the cause in some cases it isn’t right to think it is always the case. Basically I view it like the driving factor for the Pirates financial shortcomings comes down to what question you are asking:
Why aren’t the Pirates more active in free agency and why are they likely embarking on another rebuild?
The Driving Factor – Major League Baseball
What don’t the Pirates generally spend more?
The Driving Factor – Lower Revenue (TV Deal and City of Pittsburgh)
Why weren’t the Pirates more aggressive when they had a good team?
The Driving Factor – Ownership
This is just my view of the situation. Others will undoubtedly have their own but it is foolish for anyone to think there is just one root cause to the Pirates financial situation. The truth is there are many factors at play including several I probably forgot about it or simply do not know. The topic has lately became too focal (every story) and too focused (just ownership) in every Pirates discussion. It makes discussing the Pirates difficult and is why I tend to avoid the topic of finances as few can carry on a rational discussion about it. Hopefully this will make at least a couple people reconsider always reflexively turning Pirates conversations towards the financial side.