Friday, January 27, 2012

Prince Fielder, Mike Ilitch and the quest for value

Prince Fielder and Mike Ilitch: One is rich, the other is richer.
Now that Prince Fielder is officially a Detroit Tiger ...

The Tigers owe Fielder $214 million over the next nine seasons. They owe Miguel Cabrera $86 million over the next four seasons. They owe Justin Verlander $60 million over the next three seasons.

That adds up to $360 million for three players.

According to Forbes, which each spring publishes estimates of the worth of each major league franchise, the entire Tigers franchise was worth $385 million as of 2011. (Forbes valued the Twins at $490 million.)

Frankly, I'm over my head when it comes to numbers like these. I'd be a fool to think that I know more about finances than Tigers owner Mike Ilitch; he and his family have built an empire of pizza and pro sports and casinos and who knows what else that's worth at least $2 billion, and I ... haven't.

I don't even know if extremely pricey players such as Fielder, Cabrera and Joe Mauer count as assets or as liabilities when Forbes estimates a team's worth. There may be no real connection between payroll and worth.

But it feels out of balance for a team to have essentially its entire value tied up in three players.

Certainly Ilitch runs his team differently than do the Pohlads. Forbes consistently estimates that the Tigers operate at an annual loss of more than $20 million; the Fielder signing pretty much guarantees that will continue. The Pohlads have, I'm sure, subsidized the Twins from time to time, but in the main they expect the team to pay its own way.

The Pohlad approach seems to me the more stable way to operate.

Like the late Carl Pohlad, Ilitch has offspring who are active in the family empire, and it would seem likely that there is a succession plan in place — likely that the Tigers will not, when the 82-year-old Ilitch dies, enter the bizarre world of probate that ensnared the Red Sox and Royals when their big-spending owners passed on.

Still: The Tigers have a major market payroll and small market revenues. At some point, that contradiction is going to bite them.

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