For the Detroit Tigers, dark clouds have been looming on the horizon for long enough that a down season like the one they’re having now (57-73, .438) has not come as a complete surprise. That this was, in some sense, foreseeable– even if not entirely avoidable– doesn’t necessarily make it more palatable.
It’s no mystery that one of the Tigers’ most significant structural issues is the fact that they have a lot of their payroll resources tied up in a few large, long-term contracts with older players who are past their respective primes. As I observed at the beginning of last season, though, 2018 represents an important break point in the team’s present financial structure. There are two reasons for that: 1) some of those large contracts come off the Tigers’ books in 2018, and 2) the team’s current television deal with Fox Sports Detroit expires. It’s that second part that holds real financial potential:
Baseball might not grip the nation the way it once did and the way football now does, but the sport is extremely popular on a local level, making teams’ local broadcast rights as valuable as ever. The increasing price of these contracts means that the only thing better than a rich television contract is a new television contract. New television contracts are the things of which dreams are made– assuming you dream of signing a Zack-Greinke-caliber player or two.
Thus, the good news for Detroit: right about the time things could start to get ugly, payroll-wise, the team will be signing a new TV deal. Their current agreement, with Fox Sports Detroit, expires in 2018. As this Crain’s Detroit Business article highlights, the team has a few options, including negotiating an extension with FSD. It also could attempt to negotiate an ownership stake in whichever broadcast network it partners with going forward, something roughly half of the MLB clubs have done.
Team ownership and management may be seeing dollar signs after watching their rivals receive massive broadcast deals worth a billion dollars or more. Here is a portion of a FanGraphs table from 2016 showing the value of all of the MLB team television contracts signed since the Tigers executed their current TV contract in 2009:
Of those teams for which the contract value is known, only Cleveland, Minnesota, and Colorado have reached television deals paying them less than a billion dollars, and all of the MLB television contracts signed since 2014 have been for at least $1 billion. Tigers leadership undoubtedly will be pointing to all of those recent deals in the negotiations with FSD (or another potential broadcast partner).
The bad timing of the team’s on-field struggles comes into play here too, though. After a decade of top-tier competitiveness, the 2017 Tigers won’t even sniff the wild-card chase, and everybody knows it. That probably explains why no team saw a larger relative drop in television ratings this season:
In terms of actual ratings, this isn’t the catastrophe it might appear to be, as the Tigers had been performing well, ratings-wise, in recent years. The eve of broadcast contract negotiations obviously isn’t the best time for a big dip in performance and ratings, however. One wonders whether, in light of the importance of these contracts, the team should have worked on a new TV deal a few years ago or should have instead triggered the inevitable rebuild a few years earlier in order to be able to make a more credible presentation of an upward-trending team in 2018.
Of course, it takes two to reach a meeting of the minds, so it’s possible the Tigers tried to get a jump on this during the winning days but weren’t able to make any headway with FSD at that time. It also is possible that these year-to-year fluctuations matter less than we outsiders think. Regardless, as we look toward the next era of Detroit Tigers baseball, the team’s new television contract will play as much of a role in shaping that next era as any current or future player contract.
Jordan Zimmermann takes tennis lessons – 8/20
Tigers Notes, 8/8/17 – 8/8
Decoding the Upton Myth – 8/2
Even the umpires just wanna go home – 7/21
Yo, a J.D. Martinez trade comp – 7/19
Martinez trade triggers premature referendum on Avila – 7/19
Michael Fulmer has righted the ship – 6/27
Tigers in Retrograde – 6/19
Fixing Justin Upton – 5/31
Soft in the Middle Now – 5/30
Reliever Relief, Part 2 – 5/11
Reliever Relief – 5/8