The Noncompetitive Advantage

The Pittsburgh Pirates became the subject of increased scrutiny last week after leaked financial documents revealed that the lowly baseball club had managed to turn a profit while enduring 18 consecutive losing seasons.  The Pirates, from the front office down, have been run so poorly over the bulk of that futility streak that it should come as a surprise to some that a “small market” baseball club could indeed make money while failing to resemble anything close to a competitive team.

The Pirates’ futile existence coupled with their ability to turn a profit might sound somewhat familiar to hockey fans.  Look no further than the Toronto Maple Leafs as comparable hockey club to the Pirates.  Before Leafs fans’ heads explode, consider that statement in terms of competition and profit.  The argument that pundits take aim at the Pirates with is that the club has little to no immediate need to compete in the National League if they’re turning a profit while losing on epic level and drawing very little in gate reciepts.  That’s where the Maple Leafs and Pirates differ greatly; the Leafs are the NHL’s biggest draw, and while they’ve hardly been a Stanley Cup favourite over the last decade, they haven’t skimped on payroll and at least duped their fan base into thinking they’re going to compete.

In Canada, hockey is gospel.  We know that, which is why we accept that a club primed for their sixth consecutive playoff absence will find its way into 41 nationally televised hockey games next season.  There’s no denying the support of their franchise among Leafs fans, although, it’s fair to question that blind faith.  Despite their current run of futility the Leafs still draw more than their competitors, both at the box office and on TV.  Even without a single playoff appearance since the NHL’s return from the 2004-05 work stoppage, the Maple Leafs still lay claim to the league’s highest average ticket price at $114.10.  Even Detroit Red Wings fans have to pay more when the Leafs are in town, Jesus, I’d like to see some logic void of the “original six” argument on that one.

That hefty ticket price offers very little in the way of value, at least if you’re looking at it from a return on investment standpoint.  ESPN’s 2010 Ultimate Team Standings ranked the blue and white 102 out of 122 North American professional sports teams in terms of what “franchises give back to the fans in exchange for all the time, money and emotion the fans invest in them”.  The method for determining the rankings was based on several factors including; affordability, fan relations, ownership, players, stadium experience, title track, etc.  Say what you will about the Pittsburgh Pirates, but any average fan can walk up to the gate at PNC Park and purchase a ticket for the purpose of enjoying a baseball game complete with affordable food and beer.  You can’t say the same for the Toronto Maple Leafs’ in-game experience.  After purchasing a ticket from a scalper for well above face value a Leafs’ game will run you well into the hundreds if you plan on enjoying a drink and some food. Unless, of course, you’re a swag steppin’ big shot with corporate tickets.

It’s not just at the concession stands and box office where Maple Leafs Sports and Entertainment gouge their fans; according to Forbes Magazine the club was among the least efficiently run in terms of management over the 2009-10 season.  In a study that measured efficiency by calculating ” ‘payroll cost per win’ AND whether or not the team qualified for postseason play”, the Leafs spent $1.53 million per win while the median for the league was at $1.2 million.  At least they’re among other under performing clubs like the Edmonton Oilers, Calgary Flames, and New York Rangers, although the average ticket price for all three of those clubs is below $60.

Are The Leafs Hockey’s Answer to Baseball’s Pirates?

According to the documents outlined in an Associated Press report, the Pirates were able to make money by collecting nearly half of their income from Major League Baseball sources such as television revenue and merchandise sales.  The club has drawn a shit-ton of scorn for taking MLB money, and not putting it back into on-field baseball operations.  Fair enough, they’ve been shedding payroll year after year while seemingly lining the pockets of ownership and executives with very little concern for winning.

The comparison I’m making here is that MLSE has very little incentive to produce a winning hockey club, just like the argument that many have made in regards to the Pirates.  Once you start winning, then it becomes an expectation — which is where a lot of the scrutiny the once storied Bucs probably originates from.  How can a team that’s won five World Series titles between 1909-1979 and another nine division titles after between 1969-1992 reach a level of futility never before witnessed?

In my selectively humble opinion, the Toronto Maple Leafs aren’t exactly on the same scale as the Pirates in terms of futility.  They’re an interesting case study in the emotional attachment that fans have to their team, though.  The Maple Leafs rule the roost in terms of merchandise sales, television revenues, and box office returns; if anything it’s reasonable to take aim at their bloodless ownership and mercurial management team for failing to deliver an on-ice product that’s worthy of increased costs and national exposure.  In Richard Peddie’s world, the playoffs would only allow the Leafs to make even more money by pumping up the ticket price to an obscene level.  You would think maybe they would have approached this rebuilding thing with a little more planning to make the postseason a reality.

Maybe it’s time Leafs’ faithful stop spending first and asking questions later… but that would be unfaithful.