Cowboys Prove Ticket Demand Still Exists – At the Right Price

…and that price is different in every city for every team at every stadium. The Cowboys are the team in Dallas. Though the Mavs sell out and the Stars usually do well, the Cowboys headline that city. Jones built a palace, charged the highest prices around – $16-150k per PSL as reported by SBJ – and he is still on the brink of selling out the Stadium, coming off a disappointing season no less. Jones knew the market and did an excellent job of extracting maximum value.

On the other hand, look at the NY market. The Yankees, Mets, Jets, and Giants have all failed to an extent, mispricing tickets and leaving revenue on the table. If you view ticket pricing and ticket plans as a negotiation with your fans, as with any good negotiation you need to wait for the best opportunity to come with your best offer. Its arguable that both NY baseball teams came to fans with an offer to benefit the teams at a time when neither had any leverage in the situation.

First, the economy clearly hurt, but that’s out of the teams control, though they could have reacted better by making changes on the fly and won some equity with fans. Second and somewhat overlooked, they are all entering the market at the same time. Part of the allure of new stadiums is the differentiation factor. The NY sports market essentially offset each other on this factor by opening stadiums and selling PSLs all within a few months span – that’s four fan bases, with a lot of overlap smacked upside the head at the worst possible time. Another point, which is minute in this instance is that outside of the Giants none is coming off a recent championship or even a playoff season, and no player has arrived that can move the needle on ticket sales since A-Rod. Since all four teams do spend in free agency and have star players the argument holds less weight, but it’s another point to keep in mind.

The point here is that the lack of differentiation in the NY market for new facilities and the current situation gave the fans leverage in the ticket pricing “negotiation”. This leverage drove down demand, however the teams priced tickets at the point where demand may have been if their stadium was the only new one and they were the only game in town – similar to the Cowboys. It’s not that today’s sports market can’t yield these prices, its that teams can’t operate in a bubble, they need to become more keenly aware of the external environment and remain flexible.

This applies to smaller market teams, who may not receive criticism for high prices, but still play to half empty stadiums. Think bigger than just your team. Management is smart enough to do this and always talks about, yet it often does not show up in practice.

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Lay Off Willie

Forget yesterday’s reprieve, Willie Randolph is managing his last games for the New York Mets. Omar Minaya and ownership are using Randolph as the primary scapegoat for last season’s collapse, and the disappointing start this year. Few players have come to his defense, contrary to the Yankees treatment of Joe Torre. All Mets management did yesterday was hang yet another distraction over a team that struggles to handle adversity. The team is a ticking time bomb set to explode, the only question is where and when.

Randolph certainly deserves some of the blame. He is the manager, the team is underperforming, and appears unmotivated, that has to reflect on the job he’s doing – to an extent. However, this season’s demise started in the offseason. Minaya had a chance to fix an old, inconsistent pitching staff that collapsed in September. Johan Santana solved the big problem, an ace starter, but he stopped there. Minaya counted on Pedro Martinez to return as his #2 starter after missing over a year. He projected El Duque as the fifth man, someone who is known to take lengthy in-season sabbatical. That left the mind-bogglingly inconsistent Oliver Perez and still young John Maine to shoulder the load when the other two broke down. Inevitably, both Martinez and Hernandez broke down – even quicker and less productively than I imagined – leaving Maine and Perez to shoulder the load. Disappointing Mike Pelfrey has performed poor in taking over the fifth spot. Minaya created this mess, or should I say, left it.

Look at the position players, same story. Moises Alou is a top tier hitter, even at his advanced age. However, he’ll never be mistaken for Cal Ripken. Last season Carlos Delgado’s imminent demise was obvious to anyone watching. Luis Castillo is a questionable contract. Maybe he’s good for this year, but four years at that money?

You expect Wright, Reyes, and Beltran to play at an All-Star level. Outside of that core, Minaya handed over a team with a number of question marks, filled with inevitable problems. Outside of Ryan Church’s emergence, every question mark has become a resounding negative. The core players, who are supposed to carry the team when they struggled, need carrying themselves. Minaya and Randolph can’t do anything about those three, the rest of the issues come back to Minaya, the real fall guy here.

Randolph is not the best in-game manager, he’s certainly not Joe Torre off the field, nor is he a fiery personality like Lou Piniella. Still, I ask you to find a manager that would do much better with this crew. The team had unrealistic expectations. They are not a 100-win team, maybe 90 wins if everything broke right, which it hasn’t. The Mets are better than their current record, just not as good as people think they should be.

I heard a good point, Wilpon may hold off the firing because Randolph is a coach on the All-Star team at Yankee Stadium. If that actually played into the decision, it’s a disgrace since the team should come first, but I’m not counting it out. Odds are Randolph does not finish the season because this Mets team is not going to markedly improve.

Piazza Rides Into the Sunset

Twenty years after signing as a 62nd Round LA Dodgers draft pick, a favor by family friend Tommy Lasorda, Mike Piazza quietly retired yesterday as a sure fire first-ballot hall of famer. His final two seasons spent in relative anonymity in Oakland and San Diego, arguably the greatest hitting catcher ever finishes with a .308 career average, 427 homeruns, and 1335 RBI’s.

For full disclosure, I’m a Yankee fan – always have been, always will be. Still, Piazza captivated me from the day he arrived in NY in May 1998. With the Yankees beginning what became a record-setting season, the Mets stole the spotlight, pulling the trigger on the blockbuster trade with Florida on a Thursday afternoon. Piazza’s first game still stands out, a glistening Saturday afternoon at Shea against Milwaukee. Stepping in to a king’s welcome, the savior scorched a line drive to the right center field gap with his vintage swing featuring the long follow through. The ball jumped off his bat, hit so hard it took a bounce and bolted toward the wall, splitting the outfielders. An RBI double, Piazza stood on third after the throw home. Not a run of the mill double though, a prodigious gapper – thus began the Piazza era.

Signature home runs, start with the three-run blast in Houston later that year as the Mets made a stretch run for the playoffs. Then there’s the blast he basically hit out of Shea Stadium against the Yankees, of course the dramatic slam against the Braves in the first game following 9/11 to cap a miraculous eighth inning comeback. The one that got away of course, was the long fly out to center that ended the 2000 World Series, a few feet from adding to the legend.

The 12-time All-Star put the Mets back on the map during a time when the Yankees were dominating baseball, and he did it with class. Piazza carried New York’s second-team to the playoffs in 1999, and the World Series in 2000. He brought the fans back, which certainly helped get Citi Field approved and built. Unlike today’s Met stars, Piazza had a good relationship with the media, stood up to constant criticism of his defense, answered the questions after tough losses and big wins, hard to find anyone with a bad word to say.

The numbers speak for themselves. By far the most home runs for a catcher (396), he redefined the position. Only eight catchers have posted a .300 average with 30 homers and 100 RBI in a single season, Piazza did it six times. Of the others, only Roy Campanella did it more than once (3). Constantly chastised for his below average throwing arm, Piazza worked hard on his defense to become a solid catcher. Former pitchers praise his game-management and pitch selection skills, likely to be overlooked by his offensive prowess.

The 1993 NL Rookie of the Year wanted to continue playing, but remained unsigned this season. Not exactly a storybook ending to a historic career, yet more realistic and appropriate than suddenly hitting over 40 home runs as he approached age 40, like many of his contemporaries. When a player like Piazza rides into the sunset, its a good time to reflect and appreciate the fact that we watched one of the great baseball players ever, both on and off the field.

Cooperstown in five years – book it!

Wagner Bashes Teammates – Again

Shea is slowly turning into the Queens version of the Bronx Zoo. Manager on the hot seat, fans growing restless, team performing poorly, and for the second time in recent weeks an outburst by the outspoken closer. Two weeks to the day after calling out Oliver Perez as mentally weak and not giving 100%, Wagner pointed out how Carlos Delgado, Carlos Beltran, and Jose Reyes, among others, quickly disappear when the going gets tough, leaving Wagner and David Wright to answer the media after tough losses.

Wagner is absolutely right. Anyone who follows New York teams, and New York media, knows that group of well-paid position players on the Mets has craftily avoided representing the team in the media – to put it nicely. Does Wagner help matters by spouting to the media about it? Absolutely not. He’s the type who no filter between the brain and the mouth, whatever he thinks, he says. Call it honesty, call it being up front, call it stupid. Anyway you slice it, Wagner just escalated an already shaky situation.

His comments are dead on, everyone in that organization probably feels the same, but saying as much could hurt the team. I love it, great fodder for commentary, made great radio yesterday, another plot line heading into a subway series with both trains running off the track. The Mets, specifically Delgado, Beltran, Reyes, et al., will either respond to Wagner and step up, or these comments will enhance the rift.

If Randolph started the season on the hot seat, following the 2007 collapse, the temperature continues to rise. He has no control over Wagner, but it hints at Willie losing the clubhouse. While Randolph deserves some blame, Minaya deserves more for the gaping holes he left on this team, and the players deserve the most. All three aforementioned players are hitting under .260, and Delgado and Beltran’s combined home run total equals role player Ryan Church. They are tremendously underperforming, based on past performance and those gaudy salaries they earn. Stand up, face the music, answer the tough questions – don’t give Wagner the opportunity to throw you under the bus.

As bleak as everything sounds, New York sits 2.5 games behind surprising Florida in the NL East, far from insurmountable. One five game win streak, and all is forgotten. The bigger problem is on the field. This team looks far from putting together any win streaks. Outside of Maine and Santana, the starting pitching has disappointed – as we expected if Pedro went down, and El Duque went on annual hiatus. Add Luis Castillo to the list of lowly offensive performers, and it adds up to major lineup trouble – thank god for Church and Wright, or who knows how bad it would be. Not shocking when you consider the Mets relied on perennially injured Moises Alou.

Off losing three of four to lowly Washington, the Mets stumble into the Yankees series in need of a boost from Santana on Friday night. If the avalanche of negativity continues this weekend, WIllie could be in trouble sooner rather than later, and things could get ugly at Shea. Wilpon may not need a wrecking ball to destroy the Stadium after the season, at this rate fans may take the liberty.

Oh by the way, lost in the hoopla, Mike Pelfrey threw a gem, flirting with the first no-hitter in franchise history. You may have missed that part.

Mets Worst Nightmares Coming True

Blinded by the Johan Santana deal, everyone in New York thinks its a foregone conclusion the Mets will at least win the division, if not the NL pennant, without much competition. After a historic collapse, Omar Minaya patiently waited to pull off a heist, grabbing Santana for an array of mid-level prospects. However, that bold move, without question a great decision given the circumstances and need, hides a handful of risky contracts and weaknesses on a flawed Mets squad.

57 pitches into his comeback season, Pedro Martinez walked off the mound, about to expose one of those Met weaknesses, starting pitching depth. Prognosis – out until June, which may really mean July in Martinez rehab terms. Pedro was the big question mark, if he returned to a semblance of his former dominating self, behind Santana in the rotation, the Mets had four solid starters. Without Pedro, the pressure mounts on Maine and Perez, and an iffy 5th starter situation becomes a serious problem as that role moves into the fourth slot. El Duque is already on his first of multiple hiatus’ this season. Running Mike Pelfrey out every fifth day, or Nelson Figueroa, does not lend itself to long losing streaks. While you watch Pelfrey struggle, take a look at how effective Brian Bannister is in KC, a pitcher Minaya basically gave away last off season.

Martinez brought pitching concerns to the forefront, lineup problems started in Spring Training. Reyes, Wright, and Beltran are elite offensive players, take them as given for MVP type production – if not, Willie can start looking for a new job now. Behind them, Carlos Delgado is the offensive equivalent to Pedro Martinez. An aging star who struggled to produce and battled injuries last season that the Mets are counting on.  Already battling a bad hip in the spring, about to turn 36, Delgado is a high risk proposition from both a health and production stand point. After Delgado, the lineup reads Ryan Chruch, Brian Schneider, and Angel Pagan or Endy Chavez, in front of the pitcher, perhaps one of the weakest bottom four in baseball. Can you say rally killer?

Moises Alou you say. Already on the shelf. Yes, he will be back, he’ll hit .350 for a month because he is a great hitter, lull everyone to thinking the Mets lineup problems are resolved, and just when you start to feel confident, he’ll pull up lame again and disappear for two months.

Signing Luis Castillo for 4 years will haunt the Mets. Never more than a glorified slap hitter with some speed and above average defense, the Mets made a mistake committing to him long term. Resting a season of hope on Pedro, Delgado, and Alou is not smart management. The Mets left themselves vulnerable to risk in too many areas, and may end up paying for it. Philadelphia and Atlanta are not without problems, but unless an unsung starter emerges or Delgado and Alou manage to both stay healthy and put up numbers reminiscent of their primes, the Mets should gear up for a battle.

No-Brainer for Mets

Patience paid off for Omar Minaya. The Mets GM, who needed Johan Santana more than Boston and his crosstown rivals, stuck to his guns. He stared Bill Smith down, never gave in on Jose Reyes, Mike Pelfrey, or any other proven major league commodities the Twins targeted. Minaya sweated out Boston’s package of prospects. He took deep breaths when the Yankees decided to dangle Philip Hughes. In the end, Minnesota waited too long, disenchanted the the AL superpowers – neither really wanted to dismantle the future for Johan anyway – then when they had to move Santana Omar stood with the best offer, the only offer.

6 years, $137.5 million with attainable incentives. Risky grounds for a pitcher – yes. But Santana stood to get that contract from someone, especially after San Francisco gave Barry Zito, who can barely hold a candle to Santana, an outlandish $18 million per year contract last season. The Mets had so many reasons to make this deal.

Jeff Wilpon did not have John Maine in mind when he envisioned Opening Day at new Citi Field next season. Now the Mets have a true ace, the potential hall of famer in his prime, to close out Shea and open Citi Field with. Santana guarantees attendance, he guarantees headlines. Not easy to come by in a town where the Mets need to work double overtime to grab any attention from the Yanks.

Lest we forget, four months ago the Mets experienced the worst regular season collapse in baseball history. Tom Glavine recorded one out in the final game, Philip Humber made his first major league start in the last week of the season, Pedro Martinez was available no more than once a week down the stretch – see a trend? Willie Randolph needed a stopper, an ace to stop the bleeding – he needed a Johan Santana. Since the season ended Minaya did nothing to supplement the pitching staff. Glavine left, a foregone conclusion after that finale, they toyed with Livan Hernanadez, but unless this is the Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest Livan will not save the team.

Last season, Minaya rolled the dice, counting on an unreliable, aging El Duque, an aging Tom Glavine, and a speedy recovery for Pedro Martinez. It almost happened. Before Santana, the Mets rotation showcased an even older, less reliable El Duque, an unknown quantity in Martinez, the solid yet hardly dominating duo of John Maine and Oliver Perez – though Perez can become dominant – and the unfulfilled potential of Mike Pelfrey. Enough to cause indigestion. Philly grabbed Brad Lidge, moving Brett Myers back to the rotation, forming a nice young 1-2 punch with Cole Hamels, while Atlanta hoped to get healthy. Without an ace pitcher the Mets watch next October from home again.

Not only did Minaya obtain his pearl, he sent Minnesota a bag of balls. No major-league proven talent, no major-league ready stars. Carlos Gomez has more questions than answers, Humber struggled at AAA last season, taking a step back. Kevin Mulvey and Deolis Guerra may prosper down the line. Even if one of those four becomes an All-Star, or even two, the Mets are built to win now and none of those players can help.

The Mets immediately become favorites in the NL, but far from a guarantee. Remember, Cleveland beat Santana five times last season and won the division. Santana looked human down the stretch last season. Attribute it to lack of interest, or the league catching up to him, or diminishing skills. Bottom line, Santana was beatable. He allowed the most homers in the AL last year, and pitchers always carry the injury risk. No question, it’s a risk the Mets had to take.